A Place to Call Home
Immigrant Exclusion and Urban Belonging in New York, Paris, and Barcelona
Ernesto Castañeda



Context of Reception, Individual Experience, and Urban Belonging

Have you ever felt out of place, like a complete stranger? Have you ever moved to a new city where you do not know anyone? Have you ever lacked a place to call your own? Now imagine all of this and that you are from a country with a different language and customs. When you move to a new country, you must constantly question what locals consider appropriate social interaction. Moving to a new country requires checking your assumptions. You need to be fast on your feet and learn to adapt quickly to a new set of situations considered mundane by locals. As an individual abroad, you have to learn to decode the unwritten rules, norms, and assumptions that are second nature to natives, so ingrained they have become hard to explain. To integrate, you must first explicitly understand your own social norms and the culture that you carry.

Like a chameleon, a successful immigrant has to adapt quickly to a changing environment and play the insider/outsider role as demanded by each situation. This is not an easy task, especially when busy with work and raising a family. Furthermore, migrants deal with constant uncertainty about their economic prospects and about whether the federal government will kick them out or allow them to stay in their new place of residence (Castañeda 2013a; Gonzales 2015; Dreby 2015). Developing a sense of belonging may initially appear as an individual experience and decision, but social, political, legal, and economic conditions shape this process.

Would the same person have similar experiences integrating in different cities? Integration is experienced individually but within the cultural context of the country of origin and their new country. Although resettlement always presents challenges, local dynamics can make it easier, or more difficult, to belong. Cities can either mitigate or exacerbate the process of integration. This book discusses how social processes in different cities have an impact on immigrant inclusion and sense of belonging. It uses a comparative mixed-methods approach to show how immigrants with similar backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses fare very differently in three global cities due to different micro and macro factors. This book shows the interconnections between individual dispositions and historical forces while inhabiting a new city. Employment rates, political participation, the ability to engage in cultural practices, legal status, and interactions with individuals from diverse backgrounds all combine to integrate immigrants. For newcomers, the feeling of belonging is an indicator of policies and practices striving to create a welcoming environment that maximizes immigrant contributions to their new cities.

Immigrant Integration

Migration is the more general term that denotes geographical movement. Migration entails both emigration, leaving your place of birth, and immigration, arriving into a new area. Calling people migrants acknowledges that relocation may be permanent or temporary, that they can move to multiple locations through life, and that people often engage in transnational activities like remitting and keeping in touch with their hometowns. Calling individuals “immigrants” puts the emphasis on newcomers settling down in a particular place. Researchers are also concerned with the second and third immigrant generations, who are most often born in the new place of residence and are citizens; yet, as descendants of immigrants, they may go through processes that categorize them as members of a different race or ethnicity (Castañeda 2018).

The emphasis of this book is on immigrants living in a new city that may eventually feel like home. Immigration scholars use different terms to refer to the process by which immigrants keep ethnic differences or get absorbed into a new place of residence. I use the term integration to describe the ability of newcomers and their offspring to interact on mostly fair and equal terms with established city residents. This is a normative goal rather than a description of reality because it presumes equal opportunities and outcomes, given equal merit and effort, in spite of one’s culture, religion, or place of birth. In other words, integration means upward social mobility, no residential segregation, intermarriage, and the potential for equal participation in politics and public activities. Unlike assimilation, integration does not imply losing the culture of the country of origin but actually being able to sustain it while also adapting to a new city. This term is also similar to the concept of incorporation—the inclusion of an excluded group into the political structures of a society (Bohrt and Itzigsohn 2015; Bean et al. 2012; Gerstle and Mollenkopf 2001; Aranda 2008). The possibility of integration is important to understanding immigrants’ feelings of belonging in the cities where they live.

The term assimilation stresses the need for immigrants to become similar or indistinguishable from natives. The term acculturation implies the adoption of the mainstream culture and the erasure of the emigrant culture. This is what the Americanization project was in America for decades. Assimilation and acculturation have become negative terms in contemporary social science because they have historically been part of coercive, ethnocentric, or patronizing frameworks. For the same reasons, outside academic theoretical debates, assimilation and acculturation to the majority culture continue to be the desired objective of nativists. Chosen assimilation is not a bad thing when it is a chosen option or happens naturally through time (Alba and Nee 2003), but some immigrants resent it when they have to erase who they are after moving across political borders.

Multiculturalism is an alternative conceptual and political model that celebrates cultural diversity and provides a way to discuss economic and civic equality without presuming a need for cultural homogeneity. In practice, multiculturalism means cohabitation while respecting cultural differences. Still, theorists who posit multiculturalism as a normative goal often overlook the fact that people may see some cultural practices as incompatible with each other or that immigrants may not feel at home despite having adopted the culture of the majority.

Cosmopolitanism is understood by some authors as a noncommunitarian, practical, global citizenship that goes above local particularisms, nationalisms, or identity politics (Vertovec and Cohen 2002). For many, cosmopolitanism is an ideal, an aspiration for the future, a liberal project (Nyers 2016; Balibar 2004); for others, cosmopolitanism is a voluntary and humanistic disposition (Appiah 2006). Immigrants may live what some see as a “practical” or “migrant” cosmopolitanism but often without full rights (Nail 2015). Yet a cosmopolitan identity has usually been accessible only to highly educated elites working in international fields (Calhoun 2002).

The extensive literature on multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and immigrant integration shows that it is difficult to settle the theoretical debates between top-down integration and multicultural policies in a purely philosophical manner. We can address the shortcomings of both assimilationist and cosmopolitan approaches by comparing objective markers of exclusion (Koopmans 2009; Waldrauch and Hofinger 1997; MIPEX 2014; Pineau, Waters, and al. 2016; Jackson and Doerschler 2012), while also focusing on subjective meanings and cultural differences between hosts and immigrants. Disgruntled natives are highly vocal, but empirical work is needed to understand how immigrants experience these models in reality.

Contribution and Approach

New York, Paris, and Barcelona are famous for their wealth, monumental architecture, and tourist attractions. These cities also depend on the cheap labor of millions of immigrants, and yet city branding campaigns often omit them. Immigrants are invisible populations that make these cities function. Their lives, struggles, and experiences go unrecognized in many social arenas. Furthermore, the experiences of these migrants in different cities are rarely compared.

Classic work in historical/comparative sociology (Moore 1966; Skocpol 1979; Tilly 1984) shows how placing local issues in a historical and comparative perspective provides information about what is unique about each case and what processes are common across cases. This book considers the subjective experiences of immigrants and then places them in larger socioeconomic and political contexts. It addresses the interactions among laws, stereotypes, and subjective feelings of belonging. It argues that beyond immigration laws and philosophies, social interactions and cultural practices determine integration. This does not mean that government policies are unimportant but that immigrants’ subjective perceptions of integration, their experience of belonging, and their cultural practices also matter. This simultaneous approach of material and experiential factors is rarely undertaken to compare immigrant integration in different contexts. Analyzing institutional and individual perspectives simultaneously and comparatively is highly time consuming, but it is good to test and generate immigration theory. Interviewing immigrants throughout metropolitan areas tells us how immigrants see their place in the city. Evidence comes from ethnographic work, as well as interviews with sometimes hard-to-reach populations in migrant sending and receiving communities. This book offers a window into the challenges that international migrants encounter when they leave their homes and adapt to life in a new city.

Pundits, opinion leaders, and anti-immigrant activists and politicians frequently present immigrant culture as fundamentally incompatible with that of the receiving society (Houllebecq 2015; Huntington 2004, 1996; Buchanan 2006; Caldwell 2009; Coulter 2015; Schult 2017). On the other hand, sociologists writing about immigration often emphasize socioeconomic structures, immigration policies, discrimination, and institutional racism as inhibitors of complete immigrant integration. This book describes structural limitations while taking immigrants’ experiences into account. The goal is to explain objective structural integration as well as immigrants’ feelings of belonging. “Belonging” refers to the sense of feeling “at home” while conducting routine activities like working, socializing, and raising a family with or without the granting of legal citizenship by the state. Being part of a city occurs regardless of legal status, as Galvez writes of Mexican immigrants in New York and their public religious practices:

While much writing on immigration assumes that citizenship is a condition that begins after the bestowal of the juridical attributes of belonging . . . Mexican immigrants are engaging in political, activist activities which enhance their sense of well-being . . . even while their juridical status remains unchanged . . . Mexican immigrants’ involvement in such activities . . . may not register on formal surveys of political activities, [but] it is no less important and real for the people involved. Indeed, it is their engagement and willingness to stand up for themselves and other members of the community they have created that will have the biggest impact on their quality of life in the United States. (Gálvez 2009: 7)

Galvez’s work on citizenship brings up all the domains in which people participate in city life despite their lack of residence permits or legal citizenship. Some scholars use the concept of cultural citizenship to refer to participation in urban public issues despite national legal citizenship (Coll 2010). Urban theorists and advocates talk about a “right to the city”; scholars sometimes use the term urban citizenship to refer to this participation in city life (Gebhardt 2016; Smith and McQuarrie 2012; Però 2007; Castañeda 2012c). To avoid confusion about legal rights and protections, in this book I use the term urban belonging; although others use the term to discuss various related phenomena (Crul, Scheider, and Lelie 2012; Centner 2012), I define it as a subjective feeling of belonging that responds to real social integration that includes economic, political, and institutional integration.

Finding a place to call home may sound mundane and unimportant, but it gets to the crux of the immigrant integration question. Dutch sociologist Jan Willem Duyvendak has done pioneering work on homemaking and immigrant integration in cities (Duyvendak 2011; Duyvendak, Geschiere, and Tonkens 2016). Italian sociologist Paolo Boccagni describes the different emotional and social connotations of “home” in the context of migration and the importance of studying it (Boccagni 2016). Feeling at home is the opposite of feeling excluded or like an outsider.

The Challenge of Difference

Polemicists argue that Latinos are inassimilable because of their religion and because there are concentrations of Spanish speakers in certain areas; similar claims are made about Islam and Arabic in Europe (Huntington 2004; Caldwell 2009). Yet these authors base their arguments on general assumptions and impressions; they know very little about the process of migration and the actual cultural practices of migrants.

Ethnographers document everyday practices, collective traditions, and beliefs (Jiménez 2010; R. C. Smith 2006; Mooney 2009). In contrast, journalists, policy makers, government officials, politicians, and lawyers—those who most often discuss immigration policy in the media—tend to present analyses that overemphasize laws and the state as the main determinants of immigration and incorporation, thus exaggerating the power of the state in managing migration. The state1 clearly matters because (a) it promulgates immigration laws that create or dispel illegality (Ngai 2004; De Genova 2004) and (b) it treats newcomers in ways that foster or inhibit pathways for social interaction and behavior across its entire population. Furthermore, the challenge of integrating immigrants results from the tension between the idea of homogenous “nation-states” and the universal right of human mobility, both recognized by the member states of the United Nations. Politicians may scapegoat migrants to air economic grievances and advance partisan political disagreements in other areas (Castañeda 2006; Shapira 2013). Often, anti-immigrant speeches and campaigns have more to do with position taking in local political dynamics than with the actual immigrants. Outspoken anti-immigrant voices affect belonging. Yet, established city residents play an important role in integrating immigrants. Therefore, immigrants themselves are the best judges of whether a particular city is predominantly hostile or welcoming.


1. The state is not a monolith; for example, some state agencies may help immigrants with food stamps, housing, education, and health, whereas simultaneously other governmental bodies may be more interested in surveillance and deportation. The state is a collection of ministries, institutions, and departments employing different bureaucrats, technocrats, and appointed and elected politicians—all with certain legal constraints and historical inertias. “The state” also faces internal pressure from self-appointed critics, opposition leaders and parties, interest groups, unions, and so on, as well as outside pressures and a growing discursive international human rights regime (Castañeda and Schneider, 2017: 71). Thus, a purely state-centric approach to immigrant integration will indeed overstate its influence on integration outcomes.