Sofia Falzoni

The Effects of Income on Transnationalism and Integration Among Hispanic Immigrants in Miami

  • Faculty Advisor

    Monica Prasad

Published On

May 2014

Originally Published

NURJ 2014-15
Honors Thesis

KH Rawlings


This study investigates the effect of income level on transnationalism and integration among 1.5 and second-generation Hispanic immigrants in Miami, Florida. Through analysis of data from surveys and in-depth interviews, I explore how income affects Hispanics’ transnationalism and integration, as well as the underlying mechanisms that account for the effects of transnationalism on integration. I find that income is not a significant factor in immigrants’ transnationalism and integration. Specifically, I find that immigrants’ level of transnationalism is more closely related to other factors, such as their country of origin, their relationships with relatives living abroad, and the length of time they have lived in the U.S. On the other hand, immigrants’ degree of integration is more strongly related to factors such as their experience with the American schooling system, their level of comfort with English, the length of time living in the U.S., and the context-specific characteristics of a city with a majority Hispanic population. This paper helps to disentangle the complex relationship between transnationalism and integration.


Since the mid-1960s, the number of immigrants from Latin American countries to the U.S. has been continuously growing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011 there were 52 million people of Hispanic origin living in the U.S., accounting for 16.7% of the population. This figure is even higher in Miami-Dade County, Florida, where 65% of the population is Hispanic or Latino (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). In recent decades, a new pattern of behavior has become visible in which immigrants continue to hold strong ties with their countries of origin. These practices can be manifest in many forms, such as traveling to home countries, communicating with relatives abroad, or speaking native languages. Each of these practices constitutes immigrants’ transnationalism and helps them to maintain closer ties with their country of origin. In Miami, Spanish is the primary language spoken at home by approximately 60 percent of the population. Due to growing immigration and falling costs of transportation and telecommunication, transnationalism has been increasing over the last decades. The issue of transnationalism inevitably leads to the question of integration: if immigrants hold close ties to their country of origin, how are they able to assimilate into the American ways of life?

This research will investigate the role of income level on Hispanic immigrants’ experiences with transnationalism and integration into the United States. Although recent scholarship has studied the relationship between transnationalism and integration, how this relationship varies with specific factors, such as immigrants’ income level, is unclear. Some scholars suggest that socioeconomic class might be a mediating factor in this relationship, noting the importance of income differences among immigrant communities. Specifically, Levitt shows that “transnational migration opens up opportunities for some and constitutes a deal with the devil for others… Those who start out with more generally finish with more” (2001: 200).

Based on the assumption that those with higher income have more resources to meet the demands of a transnational lifestyle, we can expect income level to play a role in the relationship between transnationalism and integration. Transnational practices, such as travel and telecommunication, can be costly; thus, I hypothesized individuals with higher incomes to engage in transnationalism to a greater degree. Although I expected individuals with both low and high levels of transnationalism to be integrated, I hypothesized that those with higher levels of transnationalism (and higher income) would have more loose connections to the U.S. and therefore have lower levels of integration than those who are less transnational, and presumably also low-income.

I use surveys and in-depth interviews with 1.5 and second-generation Hispanic immigrants in Miami, FL, to examine how transnationalism and integration vary by income level. I identify specific mechanisms of transnational ties, such as respondents’ travel to their country of origin, communication with and relationships with relatives abroad, and Spanish-language level and use. I then analyze respondents’ transnational practices by comparing them against the indicators of integration, such as their English language level, their engagement in U.S. popular culture, and their knowledge of U.S. history. I find that Hispanic immigrants’ experiences with transnationalism and integration do not vary by income level, and that income does not have a significant effect on the relationship between transnationalism and integration. Rather, other non-income factors—such as immigrants’ country of origin, their relationships with relatives living abroad, the length of time they have lived in the U.S, their experience with the American schooling system, their level of comfort with English, and other context-specific factors—seem to play a more important role in immigrants’ experiences with transnationalism and integration.

I begin by showing that previous scholarship on this topic has neglected to examine the role of income as it relates to immigrants’ transnationalism and integration, and propose to fill the gap in this literature. Next, I explain my data sources and methodology for the study. After reviewing my survey findings and interview data, I conduct statistical and qualitative analysis to explore the effects of income on transnationalism and integration. The analysis is divided into four main sections. First, I explore the effects of income on transnationalism, followed by an analysis of how income affects integration. Next, I examine how income affects the relationship between transnationalism and integration; and, lastly, I explore non-income factors that play an important role in this relationship. Finally, I conclude by discussing the limitations and implications of my study.

Literature Review

Scholars have extensively debated the determinants of integration and assimilation to host societies. Up until recently, transnationalism and integration were seen as two incompatible and opposing frameworks; however, recent scholarship has brought about a transnational perspective in studying integration. Although scholars have observed that transnationalism plays an important role in shaping assimilation, specific effects and how these vary with context are less clear.


Although migrants have been engaging in transnational practices for centuries, transnationalism reached a particular level of “intensity, diffusion, and velocity” at a global scale at the turn of the 21st century (Duany, 2011: 28). Accordingly, the study of transnationalism has been gaining ground in the past two decades, and scholars continue to debate the forms, mechanisms, implications, and the scope of transnationalism.

In Towards a Transnational Perspective of Migration, Basch, Glick Schiller, and Szanton Blanc (1992) defined transnationalism as “the processes by which immigrants build social fields that link together their country of origin and their country of settlement…[maintaining] and [developing] multiple relations—familial, economic, social, organizational, religious, and political— that span borders” (1). It follows from this definition that any number of activities that span borders can be considered transnational—such as communicating with one’s home country, traveling, sending remittances, simultaneously participating in two cultures, and using hybrid terms to describe one’s cultural identity.

A particular aspect of transnationalism that has been widely contested by scholars is whether immigrants beyond the first-generation also hold transnational ties. One case often cited in transnational scholarship is European immigration to America before and after the turn of the 20th century. In 1990, Portes and Rumbaut found that most of the linguistic, cultural, and transnational ties brought by European immigrants were almost completely severed by the third generation (183). However, more recent scholarship (Jacobson, 1995, Courtney Smith, 2005; Nagel and Staeheli, 2008; Gowricharn, 2009) suggests that this is not always the case. In fact, scholars (e.g. Duany, 2011; Vertovec, 2009; Kearney, 1991) found that second- and third-generation immigrants raised in transnational households are affected by the bifocality of the first-generation parents or grandparents, and “continue to inhabit cultural borders” even if they never travel to their ancestral homelands (Gowricharn, 2009; Duany, 2011: 2). Although second-generation immigrants tend to decrease their transnational practices, they often retain many of their parents’ language and culture and continue to describe themselves based on their parents’ country of origin. I study these factors in order to shed light on the debate of the transnational ties of 1.5 and second-generation immigrants and how these affect their experience with integration.


In contrast to transnationalism, integration, in its many forms, has been widely studied by sociologists since the early 20th century. Early research on assimilation, which looked at the experiences of turn-of-the-century European immigrants to the U.S., found that, over time, immigrants overcame problems and obstacles and became more like the native population (Park and Burgess, 1921). Thus emerged the classical assimilation theory, also known as the “straight-line assimilation theory,” which dominated the field for most of the 20th century. This theory posits that immigrants will follow a straight-line convergence to integration and become more similar to the majority group as they spend more time in the host society (Park and Burgess, 1921; Gordon, 1964). In 1964, Milton Gordon differentiated between “cultural assimilation,” referring to the immigrants’ adoption of language, behavior, values, and cultural patterns of the majority, and “structural assimilation,” which results when immigrants are “taken up and incorporated” and implies immigrants’ integration into the “social cliques, clubs, and institutions of the core society” such as the educational, occupational, political, and social institutions (Gordon, 1964; Pedraza, 2005: 491).

Under assimilation theory, the assumption is that immigrants will slowly move up the socioeconomic class hierarchy as they become acculturated (Gordon, 1964). In the 1990s, Portes and Zhou (1993) developed segmented assimilation theory, which deviates from the classical assimilation theory and challenges the traditional concept of a linear “straight line” assimilation process. Segmented assimilation theory recognizes that “migrants might follow different trajectories and outcomes reflecting the dynamics of race/ethnicity and class” (Vertovec, 2009: 79).

Finally, transnationalism seems to have posed a direct challenge to assimilation theories, challenging the “inevitability of assimilation” (Portes, 1999; Powers, 2013: 5). Among other things, immigrants who engage in transnationalism “remain bilingual, reside in both countries, are economically active in both, and may even hold citizenship in both,” resulting in a particular experience that cannot be described or predicted by assimilation theories (Gilbertson and Singer, 2000; Portes and Rumbaut, 2006; Powers, 2013: 5).

Transnationalism and integration

Although transnationalism has important implications for integration, up until recently, there was still a tendency in the literature to “treat transnationalism and integration as opposing social forces, as well as opposing theoretical frameworks (Kivisto, 2001; Fitzgerald, 2004)” (Nagel and Staeheli, 2008: 419). However, recent research in transnationalism and migration studies (Duany, 2008, 2011; Levitt, 2001; Courtney Smith, 2005; Portes, Guarnizo, and Landolt, 1999; Nagel and Staeheli, 2008; Vertovec, 2009) has shown that immigrants who engage in transnationalism “may develop multiple identities, lead bifocal lives, express loyalties to more than one nation, and practice hybrid cultures” (Duany, 2011: 24). The work of scholars such as Peggy Levitt (2001), Robert Courtney Smith (2005), and Steven Vertovec (2009) suggests that transnationalism and integration are not incompatible. For example, Levitt shows how individuals “[keep] their feet in both worlds” by being “incorporated into the countries that receive them while remaining active in the places they come from” (2001: 4).

In 2004, Min Zhou found that individuals and communities can use bicultural and bilingual skills to “circumvent structural disadvantages in the host society” and to foster their “horizontal and vertical integration” (Zhou, 2004; Levitt and Jaworsky, 2007: 135). This suggests that transnationalism may be advantageous to incorporation into some aspects of society.

Although transnationalism can have positive effects on integration, Peggy Levitt (2001) and Ewa Morawska (2009) have shown that while transnationalism has helped immigrants become assimilated in some cases, the same practices have hindered the assimilation process for others. However, it is less clear in which cases transnationalism is a help or a hindrance to integration. Morawska highlights a variety of factors affecting immigrants’ transnationalism and their integration, including ethnicity, race, and socioeconomic status; specifically, she studies how immigrants’ socioeconomic class can lead them to assimilate into different segments of society. Levitt (2001) has suggested that class may play a role in determining this relationship, claiming that immigrants who arrive in the U.S. with more resources are more likely to get ahead. Still, it is unclear which factors determine whether transnationalism is beneficial for integration, and the effect of income on transnationalism and integration into American society is ambiguous.

More recently, some scholars have identified other factors that play a role in transnationalism and integration. Duany (2011) explains how an immigrant’s country of origin and the economic and political relationship between the U.S. and the sending country plays a crucial role in the immigrant’s degree of transnationalism. For example, Cuban immigrants are less likely to travel to their home country due to travel restrictions; however, they can be transnational in other ways, such as telephoning and engaging in Cuban cultural traditions, music, and food. Several scholars (Waldinger, 2007; Morawska, 2009) showed how the length of time one spends in the U.S. affects the relationship between transnationalism and integration: the longer an immigrant spends in the U.S., the more likely one is to lose transnational ties and become more assimilated.

Since the 2000s, scholars have contributed to our understanding of the relationship between transnationalism and integration, identifying factors that play a role in an immigrant’s incorporation to society. Still, this is a relatively new and very promising area for research, since little is known about the specific factors and mechanisms of transnationalism that are beneficial to integration. Because socio-economic factors are repeatedly cited as a possible variable affecting transnationalism and integration, in this study I focus on the effects of income.


Sofia Falzoni (’14) is the recipient of the Weinberg URG (2013) and URAP (2012). She is currently doing a Fulbright ETA in Brazil. She first discovered her interest in research while on exchange at Sciences Po in Paris, where she took a few classes on immigration in the European Union. These courses sparked Falzoni's interest in studying the topic from a sociological perspective, and she chose her hometown of Miami as a place to study these issues as they unfolded.