Spring-Summer 2005

New Immigrants and Internet Use: Crossing Borders for Social and Cultural Benefit

New immigrant groups are among the many without easy or common access to high-speed Internet, having limited personal as well as public access. In this article, we identify a few of the barriers new immigrants face in accessing and using the Internet, and suggest ways staff at CTCs can design and deliver technology programs to improve their quality of life and life opportunities.

The Effect of Poverty and Public Housing on Technology Access and Use

New immigrant families are experiencing poverty at higher rates than the native-born population. According to 2000 Census statistics, 19.4 percent of non-citizens live in poverty, compared to 8.3 percent of the native-born population. This disparity is linked to higher rates of under-employment. “Although immigrants represent roughly 11 percent of the total U.S. population, they make up a … larger share of the low-wage labor market (20%)” (Nightingale and Fix, 2004: 53). Constrained in the financial resources for purchase for their children—including Internet access and equipment (Hernandez, 2004)—like many low-income families, immigrants turn to CTCs for Internet access (Moore et al, 2002).

About the Project

County Cooperative Extension Offices, and sites where they are partnering, are joining an increasingly diversified list of CTCs in expanding efforts to offer technology-based services to underserved groups. The Advanced Internet Satellite Extension Project (AISEP), funded by the National Science Foundation, is a major resouce in this effort. Administered by the American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC) with public and private sector partners (Internet2 and Tachyon, Inc.), this ongoing research and development project has brought high-speed Internet access and support to 60 public learning centers nationwide at little or no cost to them from 2001 to 2005. The North Central Regional Center for Rural Development is evaluating the impact high-speed Internet access is having on participating sites and community partners. So far, we have written four reports on our findings and are continuing to conduct research for the project.

For this article, we report results from interviews with site facilitators at three new immigrant-serving sites— administrators, educators, program coordinators, technicians, and others who provide an array of services to support use of the high-speed Internet. Facilitators have specialized knowledge as a result of managing and using the connectivity for educational, training, administrative, community development, and other purposes. We interviewed facilitators at the following CTCs:

  • The Salishan Learning Center (SLC), operated by Washington State University Cooperative Extension in cooperation with the Tacoma Housing Authority, located in an inner-city public housing development and serving a diverse population of low-income, mostly new immigrant residents from Southeast Asia and former Eastern Bloc countries.
Marsing Resource Center

Marsing Resource Center

  • The Marsing Resource Center (MRC) in rural Marsing, Idaho, operating on a shoestring budget from a variety of grants to serve Spanish-speaking immigrant Latino populations among others. University of Idaho Cooperative Extension is a crucial partner and provides staff support for technology programs offered at the MRC.
  • The Lexington Public Library (LPL) in rural Nebraska, cooperating with the local County Extension office to provide Internet access and programming for Spanish-speaking new immigrant Latino populations and others .

Issues Facilitators Raise about Building Technology Assets of New Immigrants

What can CTCs do to build the technology skills of new immigrants? Facilitators we interviewed say new immigrants' quality of life and life opportunities can best be enhanced by supporting their access to and use of technology in the following ways.

Providing High-Speed Access and Use in Public Housing Developments

According to the Census Bureau, 60 percent of non-citizens rent housing units compared to 20 percent of native-born citizens. Many new immigrants—especially involuntary immigrants or refugees and even seasonal transnationals—live in temporary and/or subsidized housing typically lacking Internet access. Yet there is a lack of agreement among policy-makers as to what extent the public sector should be responsible for providing technology and Internet resources, and if technology is a housing luxury or a necessity. Even if policy hurdles can be cleared, formidable construction challenges exist, especially with in older, decaying structures. Private developers and federal and local housing authorities need to be persuaded to provide basic infrastructure as well as program support.

Building Trust in Authority

Facilitators mentioned that some new immigrants bring with them distrust of authority figures as a result of harrowing experiences in their homelands. “Many of [the groups] do not trust anything that has to do with government.” The involvement of public sector partners in CTC programming can therefore pose its own set of problems. For instance, the network at one site in the project went down for several days, and new immigrant users who routinely experienced marginalization interpreted this as a pretext for denying them access to services. Said one site facilitator, “ We had some people that thought we were lying to them [about the technical problems] and that we were [using it as an excuse] to deny them access to the Internet.”

Minimizing staff turnover and developing responsive resident services are good general management principles and can help build trust with users over the long term and mitigate this situation in particular.

Embracing New Immigrant Cultures and Identities

Facilitators said CTC staff cultural and social sensitivity, together with flexibility, are key elements for delivering effective programs. CTC staff who can communicate in users' native languages and who encourage peer, shared, and familial learning in order to reach these groups are preferable to having intimidating situations with individuals at unshared workstations trying to learn from virtual strangers.

Fisher et al (2004) report that new immigrants maintain language and culture ties to cope with life in a new country. Offering programs that train and help users to access the Internet for recreational and personal use that involves them with family members, friends, and culture in their native country can help new immigrants maintain important social and cultural connections, while at the same time building their computer skills and trust in CTC staff.

Documenting Results

Site facilitators with whom we spoke have difficulty gauging the financial and other benefits new immigrants accrue from using the Internet at CTCs, in part because their CTCs lack funding for this purpose and also because highly mobile users who move and/or get a job are especially difficult to track. Yet for CTCs, showing positive impacts of their efforts is critical for securing support in the future. Measuring financial gains in the form of a new job or increased wages as a result of acquiring new technology skills, showing how users make new professional and personal connections, maintain old connections, adjust to life in a new country, and build confidence—all of this can be documented by conducting brief but pointed conversations with users. This can provide CTC staff a wealth of information to help justify and secure technology funding for the future.

The Advanced Internet Satellite Extension Project is drawing to a close. Sites no longer receiving the AISEP subsidy are finding ways to justify continued access to high-speed Internet in cooperation with county government and partnerships with community-based organizations. The AISEP achieved its technical mission of bringing affordable, high-speed Internet access to underserved sites across the country. The project also demonstrated that while Internet access offers people on the margins possibilities, attendant investments in policy and programming are needed to help CTCs and the people they serve turn those possibilities into probabilities.


Fisher, Karen E., Joan C. Durrance, and Marian Bouch Hinton. 2004. “Information Grounds and the Use of Need-Based Services by Immigrants in Queens, New York: A Content-Based, Outcome Evaluation Approach.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 55(8):754-766.

Hernandez, Donald J. 2004. “Demographic Change and the Life Circumstances of Immigrant Families.” Children of Immigrant Families . Vol. 14(2):17-49. Accessed March 20, 2005.

Moore, Elizabeth J., Andrew C. Gordon, Margaret T. Gordon, and Linda Heuertz. 2002. “It's Working: People from Low-Income Families Disproportionately Use Library Computers” Evans School of Public Affairs, University of Washington. Accessed June 15, 2004.

Nightingale, Demetra Smith and Michael Fix. 2004. “Economic and Labor Market Trends.” Children of Immigrant Families. Vol. 14(2): 49-59. Accessed March 20, 2005.

Corry Bregendahl Corry Bregendahl is a research associate at the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development. She holds an M.S. in Rural Sociology from Iowa State University.

Cornelia Butler Flora

Cornelia Butler Flora is the director of the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development. She is Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Agriculture in the department of sociology at Iowa State University.


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