Demography, Volume 45-Number 1, February 2008: 79–94 79
IMMIGRANT RESIDENTIAL SEGREGATION IN U.S.
METROPOLITAN AREAS, 1990–2000*
JOHN ICELAND AND MELISSA SCOPILLITI
This paper examines the extent of spatial assimilation among immigrants of different racial and
ethnic origins. We use restricted data from the 1990 and 2000 censuses to calculate the levels of dis-
similarity by race and Hispanic origin, nativity, and year of entry, and then run multivariate models
to examine these relationships. The fi ndings provide broad support for spatial assimilation theory.
Foreign-born Hispanics, Asians, and blacks are more segregated from native-born non-Hispanic
whites than are the U.S.-born of these groups. The patterns for Hispanics and Asians can be explained
by the average characteristics of the foreign-born that are generally associated with higher levels of
segregation, such as lower levels of income, English language ability, and homeownership. We also
fi nd that immigrants who have been in the United States for longer periods are generally less segregat-
ed than new arrivals, and once again, much of this difference can be attributed to the characteristics
of immigrants. However, patterns also vary across groups. Levels of segregation are much higher for
black immigrants than for Asian, Hispanic, and white immigrants. In addition, because black immi-
grants are, on average, of higher socioeconomic status than native-born blacks, such characteristics
do not help explain their very high levels of segregation.
mmigration has dramatically altered the racial and ethnic composition of the United
States. Between 1980 and 2000, the minority population grew by 88%, much of it fueled
by immigration from Latin America and Asia (Hobbs and Stoops 2002). The immigration
of blacks from Africa and the Caribbean has also increased signifi cantly in recent years.
As of 2000, nearly 2.4 million black immigrants lived in U.S. metropolitan areas, 42% of
which entered in the last decade (U.S. Census Bureau 2000). This rapid increase in the
minority and immigrant populations in the United States has substantially transformed the
metropolitan landscape. Some areas that previously had little diversity now have large and
growing immigrant populations (Frey 2003; Singer 2004).
Many studies have shown that Hispanic-white and Asian-white segregation is lower
than black-white segregation. However, black segregation from whites has declined over
the past few decades, while Hispanic and Asian segregation has changed little or even in-
creased (Iceland, Weinberg, and Steinmetz 2002; Lewis Mumford Center 2001). Relatively
little is known about the role that immigration may have played in these broader trends, the
levels of residential segregation of immigrants themselves, and the extent to which the ac-
culturation process and socioeconomic characteristics of immigrants shape these patterns.
Moreover, because of data constraints, comparatively little is known about whether the
effect of immigrant characteristics varies by race and ethnicity. This study seeks to shed
light on precisely these issues.
Our research is guided by the following specifi c questions: (1) Are foreign-born
Hispanics, Asians, and blacks more segregated from non-Hispanic whites than are the
native-born of those respective groups? (2) Are immigrants who have been in the United
States longer less segregated from non-Hispanic whites than are recent arrivals? (3) Are
residential patterns in large part explained by the characteristics of immigrants, such as
*John Iceland, 2112 Art/Sociology Building, Sociology Department, University of Maryland, College Park,
MD 20742-1315; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Melissa Scopilliti, Sociology Department, University of Maryland,
College Park. This work was developed under a subcontract with Sabre Systems, Inc., and utilizes funds provided
by the Census Bureau. Funding also comes from NIH Grant R01 HD 0489047-01.
80 Demography, Volume 45-Number 1, February 2008
socioeconomic status and other acculturation indicators? If the analyses yield affi rmative
answers to all of these questions, then the notion that immigrants are spatially assimilat-
ing receives strong empirical support. If we fi nd affi rmative answers for some immigrant
groups but not for others, then the “segmented assimilation” perspective may provide a
better framework for understanding immigrant patterns of incorporation. Finally, if there
is little relation between segregation and group characteristics among any racial or ethnic
group, then the ethnic disadvantage (or “place stratifi cation”) approach receives the stron-
gest empirical validation.
To investigate these issues, we use restricted data from the 1990 and 2000 censuses.
We calculate levels of dissimilarity by race and Hispanic origin, nativity, and year of entry,
and then run multivariate models to examine these relationships.
CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK: IMMIGRANT INCORPORATION AND
Three common theoretical perspectives used to explain immigrant incorporation are assimi-
lation, ethnic disadvantage, and segmented assimilation (Bean and Stevens 2003). Below,
we discuss how these models have been applied to understanding the residential patterns
Assimilation refers to the general convergence of social, economic, and cultural pat-
terns among distinct groups (Alba and Nee 2003). According to the spatial assimilation
model, which is invoked to explain residential arrangements in particular, differences in
acculturation and socioeconomic status across racial and ethnic groups help shape patterns
of segregation (Massey 1985). The model posits that new immigrants often fi rst settle in
fairly homogeneous ethnic enclaves within a given metropolitan area. This may be due to
migrants’ feeling more comfortable with (and welcomed by) fellow coethnics and to the
inability of many immigrants to afford living in the same neighborhoods as the dominant
majority group, which in the United States is the native-born non-Hispanic white popula-
tion (Charles 2001).
As immigrants make gains in socioeconomic status, such as through increases in in-
come and English language ability and knowledge of local areas, they translate these gains
into improvement in their spatial location. These spatial improvements are thought to typi-
cally involve moves to neighborhoods with more native-born non-Hispanic whites (Massey
1985). In essence, residential mobility follows from the acculturation and social mobility of
individuals. This results in the dispersion of immigrant and minority-group members and
desegregation over time (Alba and Nee 2003; Massey and Denton 1988b).
In contrast to assimilation theory, the ethnic disadvantage model (often termed “place
stratifi cation” in the residential segregation literature) holds that increasing knowledge of
the language of the new country and familiarity with its culture and customs often do not
lead to increasing assimilation. Lingering prejudice and discrimination by the dominant
group (non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. context) hamper the assimilation process (Charles
2003). The effects of structural barriers are thought to be greatest for blacks in the United
States because blacks have historically been perceived in the most unfavorable terms (Bobo
and Zubrinksky 1996; Farley et al. 1994).
Discriminatory practices in the housing market against African Americans in particular,
as well as Hispanics and Asians, have been widely documented (Turner and Ross 2003;
Turner et al. 2002). Over the years, discriminatory practices have included real estate
agents steering racial groups to certain neighborhoods, unequal access to mortgage credit,
exclusionary zoning (in which groups are restricted to particular neighborhoods), and
neighbors’ hostility (Goering and Wienk 1996; Meyer 2000; Yinger 1995). Research has
indicated a decline in discrimination in the housing market in recent years, perhaps due
to changing attitudes in society, the rising economic status of minority customers, and the
continuing effect of the Fair Housing Act and its enforcement on the real estate industry
Immigrant Residential Segregation in U.S. Metropolitan Areas 81
(Ross and Turner 2005). Overall, it is reasonable to believe that discrimination plays a role
in shaping the residential patterns of nonwhite immigrants.
A third common theory of immigrant incorporation is segmented assimilation. This
perspective focuses on divergent patterns of incorporation among contemporary immi-
grants (Portes and Zhou 1993; Zhou 1999). Individual- and structural-level factors affect
the incorporation process, and there is an important interaction between the two levels.
Individual-level factors include education, career aspiration, English language ability, place
of birth, age at the time of arrival, and length of residence in the United States. Structural
factors include racial status, family socioeconomic background, and place of residence.
Class, for example, is an important determinant of opportunities, and the skin color of the
majority of new immigrants sets them apart from European Americans (Zhou 1999). The
host society offers uneven possibilities to different immigrant groups, and segmented as-
similation theory posits that recent immigrants are being absorbed by different segments of
American society, ranging from affl uent middle-class suburbs to impoverished inner-city
ghettos, and that “becoming American” may not always be an advantage for the immigrants
themselves or for their children. Thus, according to the segmented assimilation model, we
should expect to see considerable differences in residential patterns for various immigrant
groups, with some groups experiencing no decline in their residential segregation from
non-Hispanic whites over time.
EMPIRICAL FINDINGS OF PAST RESEARCH AND CONTRIBUTIONS OF THE
Studies have generally provided some support for the spatial assimilation model. Mem-
bers of ancestry groups that have been in the United States longer are less segregated than
groups with more recent histories in the United States (Jones 2003; White and Glick 1999).
Segregation is also lower for the native-born of ethnic groups than for the foreign-born,
and studies have generally found that members of an ethnic group who have a high socio-
economic status (SES) are less segregated from whites than are low-SES members, though
the pattern is weaker for African Americans (Clark 2007; Iceland, Sharpe, and Steinmetz
2005; Iceland and Wilkes 2006; St. John and Clymer 2000).
In a pair of studies that focused on the spatial assimilation of Latinos and Latino immi-
grants, South, Crowder, and Chavez (2005a, 2005b) likewise found support for the spatial
assimilation model. Their results showed that higher-SES Hispanics and those with greater
English language profi ciency were also more likely to move into neighborhoods with more
non-Hispanic whites than were low-SES Hispanics with less English profi ciency. In con-
trast, using 1990 data on two metropolitan areas (Miami and New York), Freeman (2002)
found that foreign-born blacks who immigrated in the 1980s had about the same level of
segregation as immigrants who arrived in the 1960s and earlier in one metropolitan area,
and only slightly lower segregation in the other, providing little support for the spatial as-
similation model. Along these lines, Denton and Massey (1989) and Crowder (1999) also
concluded that race plays the most important role in explaining residential patterns of black
immigrants from the Caribbean.
Overall, the literature provides fragmentary evidence that spatial assimilation has
predictive power in explaining residential patterns of immigrants. The wide range of ex-
periences for a variety of groups, however, suggests that segmented assimilation may best
explain levels and trends in segregation, with racial and ethnic stratifi cation continuing to
play prominent roles for blacks in particular.
The present study builds on the existing literature in two ways. First, we directly
compare the segregation patterns of immigrants of different racial and ethnic groups, us-
ing data from the two most recent censuses. Previous studies have tended to either com-
pare broader racial and ethnic groups and not immigrants in particular (e.g., Iceland et
al. 2002; Massey and Denton 1989) or focus on the experiences of particular immigrant
82 Demography, Volume 45-Number 1, February 2008
groups (e.g., Freeman 2002; South et al. 2005b). No previous study has calculated resi-
dential segregation indexes for all race groups by nativity and year of entry. These com-
parisons will allow us to carefully evaluate the spatial assimilation model by contrasting
the experiences of different immigrant groups using data on all metropolitan areas in the
Second, our use of restricted census fi les permits a more precise view of the assimila-
tion process than most previous studies. In particular, we use internal census data to cal-
culate detailed characteristics for each subgroup of interest (e.g., average income of recent
black immigrants). This information allows us to estimate multivariate models that tease
out the association between residential patterns and nativity, length of time in the United
States, and group socioeconomic characteristics.
DATA AND METHODS
The data for this analysis were drawn from internal 1990 and 2000 long-form census fi les.
While residential segregation can occur at any geographic level, we chose to focus on
metropolitan areas as reasonable approximations of housing markets. We present estimates
for all metropolitan areas (MAs), which consist of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs),
primary metropolitan statistical areas (PMSAs), and for New England states, New England
county metropolitan areas (NECMAs). To ensure comparability, when presenting compa-
rable data for 1990 and 2000, we use the 2000 boundaries of county-based metropolitan
areas as defi ned by the Offi ce of Management and Budget (OMB) on June 30, 1999. Using
this defi nition, there are 318 MAs in the United States. However, our analyses include only
metropolitan areas where there are 1,000 or more members of a particular minority group
because segregation indexes for metropolitan areas with small minority populations are less
reliable than those with larger ones.1
To examine the distribution of different groups across neighborhoods within
metropolitan areas, we use census tracts. Census tracts typically have between 2,500 and
8,000 individuals, are defi ned with local input, are intended to represent neighborhoods,
and typically do not change much from census to census except to subdivide. In addition,
census tracts are by far the most used unit in research on residential segregation (e.g.,
Logan, Stults, and Farley 2004; Massey and Denton 1993).2 Thus, the data include infor-
mation on population counts for all racial groups and for Hispanics by census tract in all
metropolitan areas, as well as counts of these groups by nativity and, among the foreign-
born, year of entry. We exclude counts of individuals in institutional group quarters (such
The 1990 census collected information on four race groups: white; black; American
Indian, Eskimo, or Aleut; and Asian or Pacifi c Islander. There was an additional question
on whether an individual was of Hispanic origin. In the 1990s, after much research and
public comment, the OMB revised the racial classifi cation for the 2000 census to include
fi ve categories—white; black or African American; American Indian or Alaska Native;
Asian; and Native Hawaiian or other Pacifi c Islander, as well as the additional Hispanic-
origin question—and allowed individuals to report more than one race. Census 2000 fi gures
indicate that 6.8 million, or 2.4% of the population, reported more than one race (Jones and
1. Random factors and geocoding errors are more likely to play a large role in determining the settlement
pattern of group members when fewer members are present, causing these indexes to contain greater volatility
(Iceland et al. 2002; Massey and Denton 1988a). The 1,000 group population cutoff, while inevitably somewhat
arbitrary, was also chosen by some other studies (e.g., Frey and Myers 2002; Glaeser and Vigdor 2001). The number
of MAs used in the analyses are indicated in Table 1.
2. Choosing a smaller unit of analysis increases segregation scores because smaller units tend to be more
homogenous (Iceland and Steinmetz 2003). Census tract and block-group-based scores, however, are extremely
highly correlated (0.99), so it is unlikely that using an alternative unit would affect conclusions about the relation-
ships studied here.
Immigrant Residential Segregation in U.S. Metropolitan Areas 83
Smith 2001). This study focuses on the residential patterns of black, Hispanic, and Asian
and Pacifi c Islander immigrants, as well as non-Hispanic white immigrants in some analy-
ses (non-Hispanic whites are included in the analyses that focus on the foreign-born only
because U.S.-born non-Hispanic whites are the reference group in our segregation calcula-
tions). For 2000, minority groups in this analysis include those who identifi ed themselves
as being a member of that minority group either alone or in combination with another race.
Non-Hispanic whites consist of those who marked only white and who indicated that they
were not Hispanic. The reference group in the segregation calculations is U.S.-born non-
This analysis uses the index of dissimilarity to measure residential patterns. This is the
most common index in the segregation literature. The dissimilarity index is a metropolitan-
level summary measure that describes how evenly people of different groups are distributed
across neighborhoods within a metropolitan area. It ranges from 0 (complete integration)
to 1 (complete segregation) and specifi es the percentage of a group’s population that would
have to change residence for each neighborhood to have the same percentage of that group
as the metropolitan area overall. For example, if a metropolitan area is 20% black and 80%
white, then black-white dissimilarity will be 0 if every single neighborhood in the metro-
politan area is 20% black and 80% white. Dissimilarity is formally computed as
DxX y Y
where n is the number of tracts in a metropolitan area, xi is the population size of the minor-
ity group of interest in tract i, X is the population of the minority group in the metropolitan
area as a whole, yi is the population of the reference group (native-born non-Hispanic
whites in this analysis) in tract i, and Y is the population of the reference group in the met-
ropolitan area as a whole.
We also conducted the analyses with the isolation index (the second most commonly
used segregation index), though due to the length of the current study we limit our discussion
to dissimilarity. The conclusions do not change much when using the isolation index.4
We calculate metropolitan-level dissimilarity indexes in which native-born non-
Hispanic whites are the reference group (1) by race and Hispanic origin and nativity and
(2) among the foreign-born by race and Hispanic origin and year of entry. The cutoffs used
for length of time in the United States are 10 years or less, 11 to 20 years, 21 to 30 years,
3. Our more inclusive racial defi nitions mean that the minority group defi nitions are not mutually exclusive.
Some of those who are black may also, for example, be Asian. Other work has shown that adopting a race defi ni-
tion in which a person is considered in a group if he or she chooses only that particular group has little effect on
African American segregation calculations and a modest effect on Asian segregation calculations (Iceland et al.
2002: Appendix A). The similarity of scores across group defi nitions results, in large part, from the fact that the
proportion of people who marked two or more race groups in the 2000 census was small (2.4%). Hispanic indexes
are not affected by this specifi c issue since Hispanic origin is asked in a separate question. Methodologically, the
most important issue is to ensure that the two groups used in any given index calculation are mutually exclusive,
which is indeed the case in this analysis.
4. As with the dissimilarity index, results with the isolation index show that segregation from native-born
non-Hispanic whites is higher among foreign-born Hispanics, Asians, and blacks than the native-born of those
respective groups. One signifi cant difference in the results when using dissimilarity versus isolation is that group
characteristics, such as group size, play a larger role in explaining patterns of isolation of the foreign-born, as might
be expected. The isolation index is sensitive to the relative size of the group in question, while the dissimilarity
index, as a measure of evenness, is not. In addition, homeownership tends to be associated with higher levels of
isolation among Hispanic and black immigrants, though this relationship is statistically insignifi cant when using
dissimilarity. Results from both indexes provide general (though not unequivocal) support for the spatial assimila-
tion model. Results with the isolation index are available upon request.