From War to “Refuge”: a case-Study of Liberian Refugees Resettled in South Bend, Indiana By Mary Kathleen (Katie) Dingeman

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From War to “Refuge”: A Case-Study of Liberian Refugees

Resettled in South Bend, Indiana

By Mary Kathleen (Katie) Dingeman

Shortly after the instigation of the fourteen-year long Liberian civil war in 1989, the United States federal government began to legally accept Liberian refugees into the country. By offering resettlement aid packages and dispersing refugees throughout the country, the intent of the Refugee Resettlement Program is to foster an environment that would eventually result in self-sufficiency and incorporation into mainstream American society. However, as purported by the theory of segmented assimilation, the rigid stratification of American society prevents the upward mobility of certain immigrant groups, leading many to assimilate into poverty through the process of downward assimilation. This study employs ethnographic methods on a cohort of Liberian refugees seemingly prone to the forces of downward assimilation. It assesses whether the community currently holds the social antecedents necessary to produce the social capital that may help them eventually overcome assimilation into poverty.

From War to “Refuge”: A Case-Study of Liberian Refugees Resettled

in South Bend, Indiana
The histories of the United States and Liberia are intimately tied through the process of migration. Liberia did not exist as a recognized state until freed slaves from the United States repatriated to Africa in 1822. For over a century, the country remained relatively stable and maintained close ties to the United States. However, the dawn of the Liberian civil war in 1989 brought about a 14-year long national crisis that led to the displacement of approximately 350,000 Liberians (UNHCR 2003). Between fiscal years 1990 and 2004, the United States Refugee Program resettled more than 24,000 of these refugees, helping to establish a community of over 39,000 Liberians within the country (Dunn-Marcos, Kollehlon, Ngovo, and Russ 2005).

This study employs ethnographic methods to explore the current situation of a community of first-generation Liberian refugees resettled in South Bend, Indiana. The theory of segmented assimilation (Portes and Zhou 1993) and concepts of social capital guide this exploration of the link between the unique characteristics of the Liberian refugees and the stratified nature of the American social structure. A network perspective helps identify whether the community currently possesses the “social antecedents” necessary to surmount the seemingly eminent process of downward assimilation into poverty.


For decades, sociologists have debated the reality of assimilation as a mode of immigrant incorporation into American society. In 1921, Park and Burgess (1969) defined assimilation as, “a process of interpenetration and fusion in which persons and groups acquire the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of other persons and groups and, by sharing their experience and history, are incorporated with them in a common cultural life” (p.735). Park (1928) argued that the process of migration ultimately leads to tensions between the host culture and the culture of origin. This tension causes immigrants to enter into a “race-relations cycle” in which “diverse immigrant groups from underprivileged backgrounds are expected to eventually abandon their old ways of life and completely ‘melt’ into the mainstream through residential integration and occupational achievement in a sequence of succeeding generations” (Zhou 1997:976).

Warner and Srole (1945) expanded upon Parkian thought. They argued that a group’s rate of assimilation, through residential integration and occupational advancement, is dependent upon the structure of American society. Social class, phenotype, and racial/ethnic subsystems cause certain groups to assimilate at a faster rate than others (Warner and Srole 1945). Thus, minority groups should assimilate at a slower rate than others because of the dominant group’s reluctance to accept them on the basis of skin color, religion, and/or language (Warner and Srole 1945).

Warner and Srole’s (1945) analysis of assimilation patterns accounted for more complexity than past theories. However, according to Alba and Nee (1997), the concept of assimilation was not fully refined until Milton Gordon’s Assimilation in American Life (1964). In his analysis, Gordon (1964) developed a seven stage model that concludes with complete assimilation into the hegemonic “core culture1” of society. While the first stage, acculturation2, is unavoidable, it is possible for immigrants to resist further incorporation into the new society. “Ethnic groups may remain distinguished from one another because of spatial isolation and lack of contact” (Zhou 1997:977). However, if groups continue to interact with and become accepted by the core culture, they will generally move beyond acculturation and begin a continuous progression toward full assimilation (Gordon 1964). “This means that prejudice and discrimination will naturally decline (if not disappear), intermarriage will be common, and the minority’s separate identity will wane” (Alba and Nee 1997:830).

Zhou (1997) noted that classic assimilationist studies concerned immigrants that arrived in the United States between 1920 and 1950. “Sociological studies [of these immigrants] have indicated progressive trends of social mobility across generations of immigrants and increasing rates of intermarriages, as determined by educational attainment, job skills, length of stay since immigration, English proficiency, and levels of exposure to American culture” (Zhou 1997:977). The homogeneity of these largely white, European immigrants supported assimilation theories. However, contemporary immigration is more heterogeneous.

The passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 19653 shifted immigration to the United States away from Europe to the rest of the world. The abolition of the national origins quota system allowed the admission of immigrants from countries of Latin America, Asia, and Africa that were previously prohibited (Freeman and Birrell 2001; Massey, Arango, Hugo, Kouaouci, Pellegrino, and Taylor 1993). As a result of this policy change, the United States became more ethnically and racially diverse (Massey et al. 1993).

Due to the arrival of the “new immigrants,” multiculturalists began to criticize linear theories of assimilation as being overly simplistic; carrying underlying ethnocentric connotations “to which the foreign element is to ‘Americanize,’ dissolving into ‘it,’ becoming, in a word, ‘American’” (Rumbaut 1997:924; Takaki 1993). The combination of these critiques and several empirical anomalies raised serious questions about traditional models of assimilation (Glazer and Moynihan 1970; Portes and Borocz 1989; Portes and Zhou 1993; and Rumbaut 1997). Consequently, scholars began to produce new theories of immigrant incorporation and adaptation to American society (Gans 1992; Portes and Zhou 1993).

Segmented assimilation is one of the most empirically tested of these new theories (Hirschman 2001; Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Zhou 1997; Zhou and Bankston 1998). In developing the theory, Portes and Zhou (1993) combine assimilationist, multiculturalist, and structuralist thoughts into a coherent whole applicable to contemporary immigration. They argue that the mode of immigrant incorporation is dependent upon interactions between the policies of the host government, prejudices of the receiving country, and the characteristics of the co-ethnic community4 (Portes and Zhou 1993:84). These interactions ultimately determine whether an immigrant group will eventually assimilate into the middle-class, the underclass, or into the middle class while preserving ethnic solidarity (Portes and Zhou 1993). See Appendix A.

Like other models of incorporation, segmented assimilation argues that immigrant adaptation and incorporation are processes that occur over several generations. Much of the research using segmented assimilation as a theoretical framework focuses on the second-generation and beyond (Hirschman 2001; Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Portes and Zhou 1993). Field research for this paper occurred within two years of the first-generation Liberian refugees’ arrival to the United States. As such, firm conclusions of the community’s ultimate mode of incorporation into American society cannot be drawn. However, various factors affecting the first-generation impact outcomes in later generations (Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Portes and Zhou 1993). These factors may include a group’s history, pace of acculturation, and/or community resources for coping with cultural and economic barriers (Portes and Rumbaut 2001: 45-46; Portes and Zhou 1993). This paper analyzes the current state of the Liberian community’s coping resources in order to hypothesize about their future mode of incorporation.

Scholars have long recognized that social networks facilitate migration. “Migrant networks are sets of interpersonal ties that connect migrants through kinship, friendship, and shared community origin” (Hao and Kawano 2001:376). Massey (1987:1373-1374) discussed the network process of Mexican labor migration to the United States:

International migration may originate in the structure of sending and receiving societies, but … once it has begun, it eventually develops a social infrastructure that enables movement on a mass basis. Over time, the number of social ties between sending and receiving areas grows, creating a social network that progressively reduces costs of international movement. People from the same community are enmeshed in a web of reciprocal obligations, and new migrants draw on these to find work in the receiving society. Each new migrant becomes part of the network, and his entry expands its range of social contacts, which encourages more migration, leading ultimately to the emergence of international migration as a mass phenomenon.

When this process of “chain migration” produces a dense network of individuals within a geographic location, labor-migrant communities form. These communities provide, “a firm anchor for social relations abroad and a secure context within which migrants can arrive and adjust” (Massey 1987:1375). When communities expand and ethnic economies form, members rely on the human capital of fellow community members for their needs. With solidarity established, communication with the “core culture” is unnecessary. Migrants may then preserve certain aspects of their culture that could be otherwise lost through the process of assimilation (Alba and Nee 1997).

World systemic dynamics ultimately give rise to both labor-migrant and refugee movements (Massey 2002; Massey et al. 1993; Wallerstein 1974). However, refugees are often considered distinct from other immigrant groups (Hein 1993; Portes and Rumbaut 1990; Tichenor 2002; Zolberg, Suuhrke, and Aguayo 1986). This distinction results in a relationship with the nation-state of the host-country that may have important ramifications for the sustenance of cultural practices among refugee communities.

Since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, the United States federal government has been receptive to many refugee groups, offering legal status and resettlement benefits. However, in an effort to “avoid another Miami5,” the United States has also deliberately created policies aimed at assimilation of refugee populations into the white, Anglo core of society (Portes and Rumbaut 1990; Zhou and Bankston 1998). By placing refugees in private resettlement programs, current policies disperse refugees from the same country-of-origin throughout the United States (Portes and Rumbaut 1990; Rumbaut 1995; Zhou and Bankston 1998). According to Portes and Rumbaut (1990), this dispersion may prevent the establishment of the dense social networks necessary to build ethnic communities that promote cultural solidarity (Olzak 1983).

For government policies to be effective in the promotion of assimilation into white, middle class America, refugees must be resettled into a context within which they would experience frequent contact with white, middle class Americans. However, many refugees resettled in the United States do not have the resources necessary to obtain frequent contact with the core of society. Few come with the money and skills necessary to obtain employment in a field that would promote economic advancement. They are also faced with discrimination (Portes and Zhou 1993). As a result, many first-generation refugees work menial jobs and are resettled into poor, urban areas, where there is a greater chance to entertain social ties with native-born minorities than members of the core culture (Lin 2000; Massey 1996; Portes and Zhou 1993; Wierzbicki 2004). There is thus a smaller chance of upward mobility into middle-class America and greater chance of downward assimilation into the “culture of poverty.”

According to Portes and Zhou’s (1993) theory of segmented assimilation, the structural barrier of residential location, the color of the immigrant group, and the lack of mobility ladders makes certain immigrant groups particularly susceptible to downward assimilation. However, if the coethnic community is strong enough, its members may create mobility ladders that can override the detrimental effects of this prejudiced societal reception and still maintain a solidified cultural repertoire (Portes and Zhou 1993:87). Migration literature agrees that the means by which immigrant groups may obtain this form of mobility is through the creation of social capital.
Social Capital Theory

The theoretical concepts of social capital have their origins in classic sociological literature6. However, the term itself was not used until recently with the works of Pierre Bourdieu (1979) and James Coleman (1988). Portes and Sensenbrenner (1993) redefine the term as, “those expectations for action within a collectivity that affect the economic goals and goal-seeking behavior of its members, even if these expectations are not oriented toward the economic sphere” (p.1323).

Lin (2000) argues that, “social capital enhances the likelihood of instrumental returns, such as better jobs, earlier promotions, higher earnings or bonuses, and expressive returns, such as better mental health” (p.786). However, social capital is not spread evenly among all social networks. Homogenous networks of socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals have few resources and restricted access to information and influences (Lin 2000). “Cognitive awareness of these resource restrictions may motivate some members of disadvantaged groups to establish social ties with members of advantaged groups, to gain better information and influence…Cross-group ties facilitate access to better resources and better outcomes for members of the disadvantaged group. Nevertheless, such ties are the exception rather than the rule; homophily and structural constraints reduce the likelihood of establishing such ties for most of the disadvantaged members” (Lin 2000:787).

While members of underprivileged ethnic groups may attempt to reach out to the core group to obtain social capital, it is also possible for certain groups can create social capital themselves. Portes and Sensenbrenner (1993) lay out four forms of social capital that ethnic communities may create; one of which is bounded solidarity. According to the authors, bounded solidarity is, “solidarity born out of common adversity” (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993:1328). It emerges when individual migrants view the maintenance of ethnic solidarity as a moral obligation and only when a specific combination of “social antecedents” are present (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993:1328). See Appendix B.

The first of these antecedents is the absence of exit from the host country to the country-of-origin. “Immigrants for whom escape from nativist prejudice and discrimination is but a cheap ride away are not likely to develop as high levels of bounded solidarity as those whose return is somehow blocked” (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993:1329). Second, there must be a presence of discrimination based on their phenotypical and/or cultural differences. Lastly, the group must be able to, “activate a cultural repertoire, brought from the home country, which allows them to construct an autonomous portrayal of their situation that goes beyond a mere adversarial reaction” (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993:1329).

Portes and Sensenbrenner (1993) argue that when all three of the aforementioned social antecedents are present, the immigrant group has some quantity of bounded solidarity. The level of solidarity may vary from group to group (Yancey, Ericksen, and Juliani 1976). However, its presence still produces the positive (and negative) effects of social capital7 that can help establish ethnic enclaves that do not need to rely on the core culture for survival.

This study observes the characteristics of a community of Liberian refugees and their experiences encountering structural barriers that have the potential to prevent upward socioeconomic mobility in the future generations. Does the community currently have the social antecedents necessary to rise above the seemingly eminent force of downward assimilation? Or, must they reach beyond themselves in order to obtain the resources that they feel they need? What implications does this have upon the community’s future mode of incorporation into American society?

This research employs ethnographic methods on a case-study of first-generation Liberian refugees resettled in South Bend, Indiana. A case-study is, “research in which one studies few people or cases in great detail over time” (Neuman 2003:530). The sample for this case-study is limited to those Liberian refugees resettled by Refugee and Immigration Services of South Bend (RISSB). RISSB is a government-contracted, voluntary organization affiliated with Church World Service and Episcopal Migration Ministries. Its mission is to resettle refugees from throughout the world and help them gain self-sufficiency within six months of arrival to the United States.

Between September 2003 and September 2005, RISSB resettled fifty-nine Liberian refugees. I purposively chose five principal informants over the age of eighteen from this community, based upon the date of arrival, sex, and current place of residence. Within a community of fifty-nine people, a sample of five principal informants allowed for some breadth as well as depth of analysis.

One-year’s work as an assistant case-manager at RISSB provided me with a knowledge base of the histories and personalities of the majority of the refugees in the Liberian refugee community8. It also allowed for easy access to the community. Therefore, after informed consent forms were obtained, I engaged in participant observation for a period of four months, from August 2005 – November 2005. I spent several days observing and taking notes of my observations of church gatherings, baby showers, Liberian Association meetings, and other social and political gatherings.

In addition to attending the aforementioned functions, I also completed extensive interviews with the five principal informants. Each principal informant completed several interviews, lasting between one and two hours each. These interviews focused on the refugee’s life history and their current situation in the United States. I asked open-ended questions that allowed the Liberians to voice their unique perspectives. Each interview was tape-recorded and transcribed. Extensive field notes and journal entries also served as data to supplement the informants’ responses.

The United States’ policies aimed at residential dispersion of refugees resulted in the resettlement of Liberian refugees in various places throughout the country, including South Bend, Indiana. Similar to the Vietnamese refugees discussed by Zhou and Bankston (1998:45), the Liberians of South Bend, “initially lacked preexisting ethnic community networks to assist them.” Therefore, Refugee and Immigration Services of South Bend acted as resettlement agency that oversaw the resettlement of fifty-nine members of the community between 2003 and 2005.

Community Characteristics

“Liberia’s population can be roughly divided into two major categories, indigenous Liberians and Americo-Liberians9” (Dunn-Marcos et al. 2005). Approximately three percent of the Liberian population is Americo-Liberians10; 97% is composed of about eighteen different indigenous tribes with different native languages (Dunn-Marcos et al. 2005). Considering this diversity of the population in Liberia, the community of first-generation Liberian refugees in South Bend, Indiana is relatively homogenous. None of the Liberian refugees trace their ancestry to the Americo-Liberians. They are all indigenous Liberians; mostly part of the Kwa ethnic cluster and members of the Krahn, Grebo, and Kru tribes of eastern Liberia. They are each able to converse in the tribal language (Krahn, Grebo, Kru, or Mandingo) and speak Liberian English, a rapid, tribal-infused dialect of English. They are largely illiterate and uneducated, having spent the majority of their lives in West Africa as market vendors, farmers, and other unskilled workers.

Since they have been in South Bend, the Liberian refugees continue to regularly eat traditional Liberian foods, listen to West-African music, and watch films from their home country. They also often speak in their native tongues and wear African attire. These “mundane, regular actions in [the Liberian] community” do not, “remain confined to a sphere of personal curiosity” (Alba 1990: 77), as they are generally equally or more present at activities at which the majority of the community is present as within the confines of their individual apartments.

While these aspects of Liberian culture are regularly expressed, the Liberians have also integrated selective aspects of American culture into their lives. It is not uncommon for them to speak Liberian-English, enjoy American foods, listen to popular American rap artists, watch American movies shown on television, and wear clothing purchased from American discount stores. Despite incorporating these pieces of American culture into their cultural repertoire, the Liberian refugees have had a difficult time adjusting to life in the United States. They feel that this can be largely attributed to the difficulties of finding full-time employment and affordable housing.
Experiencing Structural Barriers

With little education, few occupational skills, and English that is hard for the average American to understand, it was initially difficult for the Liberian refugees to find employment. Many of the unemployed refugees would complain as one woman did,

I come to this country from my country where I was always working, working. Africa is hard. Now, I am here and I am just sitting. There is no work for me. I am sitting and sitting and eating and eating and my children in Africa, they are calling me crying, crying. There is nothing I can do because I have no money to send to them.
Over time, most of the men and many of the women secured employment. Some of the men have found factory work that has allowed them to save enough money to purchase automobiles and other necessities. However, the majority of the community was, and currently is still, dependent upon the welfare benefits and subsidized housing accorded to them by the federal government. With part-time jobs or full-time jobs that do not provide sufficient benefit packages, many adults are forced to live without medical insurance when their Medicaid benefits expired.

Aware of the difficulty of finding full-time employment with full benefit packages for refugees, one of the first tasks completed by the staff of RISSB includes filling out an application for federally subsidized housing at the local apartment complex, Corby Homes. As a result, more than half of the Liberian refugee population resettled by RISSB currently resides there. The majority of the Liberians who do not live there live in an apartment complex one mile away, but can often be found visiting with the other members of the community at Corby Homes. Recognizing the high concentration of Liberians living in and visiting the apartment complex, one member of the community stated, “Ah, Corby Homes? O, you mean the refugee camp…”

While Corby Homes apartment complex is situated in a lower to middle-class, Caucasian segment of South Bend, the median income of those inhabiting the apartment complex level is much lower. The majority of the residents are primarily “White” (54.8%). However, there is a significantly higher percentage of “Black” (43.2%) individuals in Corby Homes than the percent of “Black or African American” in South Bend (24.6%).

When asked questions regarding their close proximity to racial and ethnic minorities and people of the lower class in their jobs and apartment complexes, the Liberians repeatedly express their disgust with African Americans. One man stated, “O, the Black Americans are around us, but we do not like to talk to most of them.” Reasons for the decision to avoid most African Americans include that, “the Black Americans, they are so loud,” and that, “they are always doing drugs and shooting [at one another with guns]”. However, the vast majority agrees with one man, who stated, “I hate lazy people; people who are not trying to do better for themself and their family. The Black Americans, they are lazy people. This is why I do not like them.”

Most first-generation Liberians would rather associate with other members of their own community than with the American citizens who surround them on a daily basis. In rejecting the African American community, they express an invariably strong nationalistic identity. During a speech given to a future Liberian refugee mother at her baby shower, a female member of the community stated, “We must stay strong as a Liberians. We must not allow ourselves and our children to surrender to the hard times we know now.” In joy, she raised her arm and shouted, “African pride!”
Community Support

The Liberians have a strong sense of community. At the baby shower mentioned above, one man warned, “Once you have this baby, it will not be yours. It will belong to the community. People will be coming to check up on it to make sure you are taking good care of it.” Consistent with this statement, the refugees attempt to informally help one another to the best of their abilities. Women who have not secured employment regularly volunteer their services as babysitters for those families with children. When not at work or other obligations, men who have vehicles drive other Liberians to the grocery store, medical appointments, and church.

The community also actively participates in The Liberian Association of Michiana, a formal organization in which Liberian refugees and various other Liberian immigrants living in South Bend gather weekly to discuss issues effecting Liberia and Liberian communities in the United States. Meetings generally consist of community members sitting around listening to West-African music, sharing personal stories and advice, debating the backgrounds of political candidates running for election in Liberia, and taking monetary donations to remit to family and friends in Africa. They serve as a forum for Liberians to come together in a common location and safely activate Liberian identities within an American context.
External Support

Both formally and informally, the Liberians feel that they provide as much support for one another as is possible with their resources. One woman stated,

In Liberia, you always have plenty of people around you, coming in and out of your home. Here, it can be so lonely. So the other refugee try to visit with each other and try to help each other as much as they can.

However, many also recognize that they have limited access to the “information and influence” that is necessary to obtain some of their wants and needs. One member of the community stated, “I am a poor man. The other Liberians, many of them, they are poor too.” Referring to a previous discussion, his wife declared, “Oh, but [Corby Homes] is good! Some people, they are working; others, they are watching the children.” The husband added, “But you (referring to me) know the country. You can help to teach us things that we can’t do ourself.”

The recognition of their limited access to desired resources leads many of the Liberian refugees to reach beyond their community for support. Despite being considered former clients of RISSB, many still frequently call the office for help making medical and other appointments. They reach out to their sponsors and members of their church for help with English as a Second Language homework, learning basic mathematical skills, and transportation when community members are unavailable. They frequently call me with questions regarding “green card” applications, requests to either go to the library or for me to bring my computer so they can learn to use the Internet, and even questions about how to find scholarships to help their children attend college.

Future Aspirations

Despite the barriers that the Liberian refugees may encounter, they have an unwavering optimism about their community’s future in the United States. Before the dawn of the Liberian civil war, the country’s education system was among the most highly regarded in Africa (Dunn-Marcos et al. 2005). The vast majority of the refugees currently living in South Bend, Indiana did not receive an education beyond the primary level. Regardless, the majority of the members of the community agree that the means by which future generations of Liberian-Americans will succeed in America is through education. One man stated, “I can try hard to get my children educated here and then go back to Africa to tell them the importance of education.” Likewise, at a social gathering held at Corby Homes, one woman proclaimed,

America is the land of milk and honey. It can be a wonderful place to live. But, in order to lick the milk and taste the honey, we must do certain things. We must educate ourselves and our children. Education is the key to freedom.


Immigrant adaptation and incorporation into American society are processes that occur over the course of several generations. Any case-study of an immigrant group’s mode of incorporation must be longitudinal. Therefore, one must first understand processes occurring in the first generation in order to understand later outcomes.

According to segmented assimilation, an immigrant group’s mode of incorporation is determined by an interaction between governmental policy, societal reception, and the strength of the co-ethnic community (Portes and Zhou 1993). The United States federal government has been receptive of Liberian refugees. It has provided legal entry into the country and offered resettlement assistance, temporary welfare programs, and subsidized housing. These benefits may have provided some of the necessary elements for a smooth transition into American society. However, the unique characteristics of the Liberian refugee community (including their African origin, color of their skin, illiteracy, and inability to speak understandable English) and the stratified nature of American society have produced a “prejudiced societal reception.”

The combination of a receptive governmental policy and prejudiced societal reception produces a paradox that could have important ramifications for the future of the Liberian community. According to the typology created by Portes and Zhou (1993), the strength of the co-ethnic community should determine whether the Liberians will eventually incorporate in ways similar to Cambodian and Hmong refugees (downward assimilation) or to Chinese and Vietnamese refugees (upward economic mobility with cultural solidarity). The concept bounded solidarity may be used to analyze whether the co-ethnic community is strong enough to produce the latter outcome.

The Liberian community clearly has two of the three “social antecedents” necessary for the creation of bounded solidarity. First, as refugees, there is a clear blockage of exit from the country. This is consistent with their rhetoric, as many state that they will only go back to Liberia “to visit.” Second, the American social system perpetuates systematic discrimination on the basis of phenotypical and cultural differences, for both housing and employment, placing the Liberians in proximity to each other and other lower-class minorities, bolstering creation of dense networks without many ties to the “core culture.” The third social antecedent, whether the Liberians preserve an autonomous cultural repertoire that goes beyond an “adversarial reaction” to the host society, is not as readily apparent. In rejecting the African American community, the Liberian refugees express a strong nationalistic identity. However, “no matter how strongly an individual identifies with an ethnic background, if this identity is not reflected in action and experience, it makes little contribution in sustaining ethnicity” (Alba 1990:75).

The Liberian Association of Michiana serves as the best example of how the Liberian refugees preserve a cultural repertoire. There are adversarial conversations held at these meetings. However, the general purpose of the organization is to help sustain a Liberian identity in an American context. It is through this organization that the positive (and negative) effects of bounded solidarity begin to emerge. The Liberian immigrants serve as vital resources for guidance and support to the refugees; individuals share personal stories and news from Liberia. It is through these interactions that trust and loyalty emerge, and people learn that they can rely on one another for assistance.

The Liberian refugees’ involvement in the Liberian Association of Michiana, willingness to aide each other, and daily expressions of ethnic culture (through dress, food, music, and more) demonstrate the existence of a cultural repertoire. However, this cultural repertoire is not autonomous. Federal policies aimed at dispersion of refugees helped to limit the size of the community. However, the homogeneity of the community also limits the amount of “information and influence” available. With this limited social capital, the Liberian refugees regularly reach out beyond their community to the few contacts they have with the “core culture” to attain their desired resources.

The Liberian community has only been resettled in South Bend, Indiana for three years. Their inability to establish an autonomous cultural repertoire may be because they may have not yet moved beyond the stage of acculturation. However, if this is not the case, their lack of autonomous social capital may have important consequences in the future, including downward assimilation.

In order to more fully understand processes at work in the Liberian community, it is necessary to do more research. Further research should include a longitudinal analysis that focuses on the experiences of current Liberian refugee children and relations between Liberian refugees and other Liberian immigrants in the community. Network analyses should also determine whether few ties to the “core” will be of lesser, equal, or more importance then a dense community network in determining modes of incorporation.


According to Gordon (1964: 72), the core culture is persons of, “white Protestant, Anglo-Saxon origins.”

2 Gordon (1964: 71) defines acculturation as the, “change of cultural patterns to those of [the] host society.” “…these patterns extend beyond the acquisition of the English language, to dress and outward emotional expression, and to personal values” (Alba and Nee 1997).
3 See Tichenor (2002) for a comprehensive analysis of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, as well as other significant immigration policies.
4 “Receptive government policy is defined as legal entry with resettlement assistance, indifferent as legal entry without resettlement assistance, and hostile as active opposition to a group’s entry or permanence in the country … Prejudiced reception is defined as that accorded to nonphenotypically white groups; nonprejudiced is that accorded to European and European-origin whites … Weak co-ethnic communities are either small in numbers or composed primarily of manual workers; strong communities feature sizeable numerical concentrations and a diversified occupational structure including entrepreneurs and professionals” (Portes and Zhou 1993:84).
5 Miami is often considered a city where many ethnic enclaves have formed. These enclaves are said to slow and/or prevent assimilation.
6 Portes and Sensenbrenner (1993) state that the positive affects of bounded solidarity include, “preference for co-ethnics in economic transactions” and, “altruistic support of community members and goals.” Negative effects include, “leveling pressures,” “free riding on community bonds/norms,” and “restrictions on individual freedom and outside contacts.”
7See Portes (1998) for a review of this literature.
8The majority of the Liberian refugees knew me as their caseworker before I took on the role of participant observer. Therefore, during the study, most of the community saw me as their link to Refugee and Immigration Services, not as a researcher or as their peer. I often found myself hearing complaints associated with my original caseworker role, such as those regarding “green card” applications, tutoring ESL, and transportation, when I was supposed to be observing and interviewing. Trying to distance myself from the caseworker role proved to be difficult in the four-month span of this project. I determined that if I wanted to be seen as a community member, I needed to attend community functions in addition to interviews with my five principal informants. So I attended church and other social / political gatherings. As a result of my attendance at these events, fewer caseworker tasks were asked of me. This indicated a growing acceptance of me in the community beyond Refugee and Immigration Services.
9 “Indigenous Liberians are descendants of African ethnic groups who were already inhabiting the area when the first African American settlers arrived” (Dunn-Marcos et al. 2005:2).
10“Americo-Liberians are largely made up of descendants of three groups: 19th century African American settlers who founded Liberia, freed Afro-Caribbean slaves who came to Liberia in the mid-1800s, and Africans captured on the U.S.-bound slave ships by the U.S. Navy…and sent to Liberia” (Dunn-Marcos et al. 2005).

Appendix A. Modes of Incorporation: A Typology
I. Government Policy1 Receptive Indifferent Hostile

II. Societal Reception2 Prejudiced Nonprejudiced Pr N-Pr Pr N-Pr (Pr) (N-Pr)

III. Coethnic Community3 Weak Strong W S W S W S W S W S

  1. (S)

IV. Examples4 Cambodian, Hungarians Legal Argentines, Haitian Illegal

Hmong and Other Mexicans, 1950- Boat Immigrants

Refugees Small East 1900- People from Small

1975 - European 1979-83 European

Refugee Countries


Chinese, Cuban Koreans, Swiss Mariel Illegal

Vietnamese Refugees, 1965- Scandinavians Cubans Irish in

Refugees, 1960-80 in Midwest 1980 Boston

Settlements 1975-90


Appendix B. Social Antecedents of Bounded Solidarity in Immigrant Communities

Social Antecedents Social Capital Positive Effects Negative Effects

Outside discrimination

based on phenotypical/cultural Preference for

differences + + co-ethnics in economic transactions

+ +

Blockage of exit option Bounded Solidarity Altruistic support of

community members Leveling Pressures

and goals -



Preservation of an autonomous Free riding on

cultural repertoire - community

bonds / norms

Restrictions on

individual freedom

and outside


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530: 84.

 Receptive policy is defined as legal entry with resettlement assistance, indifferent as legal entry without resettlement assistance, hostile as active opposition to a group’s entry or permanence in the country.

2 Prejudiced reception is defined as that accorded to non-phenotypically white groups; non-prejudiced is that accorded to European and European-origin whites.

3 Weak co-ethnic communities are either small in numbers or composed primarily of manual workers; strong communities feature sizable numerical concentrations and a diversified occupational structure including entrepreneurs and professionals.

4 Examples include immigrant groups arriving from the start of the century to the present. Dates of migration are approximate. Groups reflect broadly but not perfectly the characteristics of each ideal type.

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