Moving toward Opportunity

Zai Liang sits in the SparX restaurant, a family-owned establishment opened in the Town of Halfmoon in the last year. (Photos by Patrick Dodson) 

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 2, 2019) — The image of a recent Chinese immigrant, settling into a Chinese-American enclave in a major U.S. city where he or she finds employment in restaurants and other family-owned businesses, is now an inaccurate one, according to new research by a University sociologist.

Professor Zai Liang of Sociology — a 2018 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence winner — is lead author on “From Chinatown to Every Town: New Patterns of Employment for Low-Skilled Chinese Immigrants in the United States,” published in the internationally prestigious social research journal Social Forces.

Working with departmental colleague Professor Glenn Deane, two researchers from Shanghai University and one from University of Rochester as coauthors, Liang's study builds on the growing literature that deals with new immigrant destinations.

Specifically addressing new employment patterns of low-skilled Chinese immigrants in the United States, Liang and colleagues over a two-year period surveyed an important channel of employment for Chinese low-skilled immigrants: employment agencies (EAs) in New York City’s Chinatown. Their results ran distinctly contrary to predictions from mainstream ethnic economic thought.

“Our findings suggest that there has been a profound change in settlement patterns of low-skilled immigrants: moving away from traditional Chinatowns in major American cities toward non-gateway destinations and rural areas,” Liang stated. One of the most startling discoveries was that Chinese restaurant jobs for these immigrants tend not to be in places with a high concentration of Chinese immigrants.

They are found, rather, in low-to-middle-income areas with a high proportion of non-Hispanic whites and low rates for both unemployment and crime. In addition, according to the study, the farther the jobs are from New York City, the higher the salaries.

“One of the key motivations in moving to non-gateway destinations is that this move will be good for family,” said Liang. In the best of circumstances, a family might start a restaurant or other small business and be able to afford a home and send their kids to good schools. Immigrant low-skilled workers, employed outside the “gateway” location of a city’s Chinatown, would also receive higher pay.

For the low-skilled non-entrepreneurs, however, the road to family success is often more difficult, causing harsh family separation. “Some of these workers who have gone through the Chinatown EAs leave their families in New York City to get the better pay in the non-gateway locations,” said Liang. “Long-term separation from their families is a major challenge.

“One person we talked to returns to New York once a month but most others with families in New York City are not even that lucky. When we spoke with some teachers in Brooklyn, we often heard them complain about not seeing these immigrant children’s parents, because most of the time the parents work in Alabama, Virginia, Ohio, all kinds of places.”

Family separation, said Liang, is just one of the implications of re-conceptualizing the immigrant labor market and immigrant socioeconomic mobility in American society.

“For policy makers, several things are worth noting,” he said. “First is healthcare access. Most of these workers and even entrepreneurs have difficulty with English when they come to use medical services. So, how do we facilitate healthcare utilization for immigrants — not only Chinese but Latino workers as well. In addition, a large number of these workers are religious and have a hard time finding churches that offer Chinese Bible study. That is a need as well.”

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