Hispanic migration in Durham, N.C.

For generations, Latino migrants to the United States overwhelmingly settled in the Southwest. Cubans immigrated to Miami, Puerto Ricans to New York City, and a sizable number of Mexicans to Chicago, but for the most part, five Southwestern states accounted for a large portion of Hispanic immigrants, and the Hispanic population in the United States in general.

After 1990, the Latino migrant community began settling in “new destinations” like Atlanta, Durham, N.C., and other locales throughout the Southeast and Midwest.

Chenoa Flippen, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences, was in Durham from 1999-2008, and witnessed the surge in the city’s Hispanic population. In 1990, she says there were fewer than a couple thousand immigrant Latinos in Durham. By 2010, there were almost 30,000.

“The Hispanic population went from being less than 2 percent to being 12 percent,” she says.

Around 90 percent of Durham’s immigrant Latino population was made up of undocumented residents drawn to low-skilled jobs in the area. The city has a large number of hospitals and universities, and houses the Research Triangle Park, which is home to more than 170 global companies, including IBM, GlaxoSmithKline, and Credit Suisse.

The high-skilled job growth triggered a demand for low-skilled services and construction labor, and employers hired undocumented residents to fill those positions. Close to 68 percent of undocumented men worked in construction and nearly two-thirds of women labored in cleaning or food preparation.

Specializing in racial inequality, immigration, and the U.S. Hispanic population, Flippen launched the “Gender, Migration, and Health Among Hispanics Study” in 2001 to investigate how these new Durham migrants were fairing in the United States. Emilio A. Parrado, a professor of sociology at Penn and director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program, was also a project leader.

Typically, Flippen says, when there is a new migration stream, the first immigrants are mostly men. This was the case in Durham, as well, where the migrants were primarily single men who came for construction work.

Family variations existed across neighborhoods, but it was not uncommon for six or seven men to share an apartment with no women in the area.

The overabundance of men caused an uneven sex ratio in the migrant community, with more than two men for every woman. Worldwide, Flippen says an uneven sex ratio is associated with problems such as increased HIV rates. She says one of the motivations for the project was to determine the kinds of factors that put migrant men at risk for unsafe behavior.

“When you look across settings, anytime that you have a very male-dominated migration flow, you tend to have higher incidences of sexually transmitted infections because you have lots of lonely men who go to sex workers,” she says.

Depression was another major issue. Men leave their families behind with hopes of bringing them a better life and end up sharing rundown apartments and working extra-long hours, sometimes without pay.

“It’s a big shock to them,” Flippen says. “They’re isolated from their families. They’re living with other men who also are depressed and may be drinking a lot. It’s just a very depressing environment.”

The six-year project involved a team of researchers from Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and members of the migrant community.

“If you’re an academic coming in, no matter how much you’ve read, you don’t really know what the community is like from the inside,” Flippen says. “The idea is to bring an insider’s perspective to this whole process.”

Migrants discussed problems in the community, and helped draft survey questions and conduct interviews. Flippen says they were involved in “every single stage of the process” and were essential in ensuring that the interview subjects felt secure enough to answer the survey questions.  

Researchers also collected data from Mexico and Honduras, the majority of migrants’ native countries.

Flippen says the purpose of collecting data in Mexico was to show that the risky behavior of migrant men was not related to culture; moreover, there was something about the migration experience and living in male-dominated environments that led to the unsafe actions.

Undocumented migrants in Durham lack access to basic social services, family and friend networks, civic associations, and a mature immigrant community that is found in places like Los Angeles.

Durham has El Centro Hispano, a Latino community-based organization, but Flippen says it is the sole resource and is “tremendously overstretched.”

“Gender, Migration, and Health Among Hispanics Study” researchers finished the last round of data collection in 2007, before the country was hit by the Great Recession.

Flippen says they are in the process of analyzing post-recession data. Preliminary findings show that the migrant community in Durham is under pressure due to the collapse of the construction industry. Many workers have left the area.

After studying the employment of migrant men, Flippen is now focusing on the occupations of migrant women. She is also putting together a pilot to extend the project to Philadelphia.

“There are a lot of immigrants in Philadelphia,” she says. “Philadelphia’s another ‘new destination,’ but we haven’t tended to think of it that way.”