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Insight Magazine

A New View of Immigration

Jennifer G. Hickey

January 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Insight Magazine. All rights reserved. 

After suffering surly bear rampages through town, the fictional mayor of Springfield announces implementation of a "bear-patrol tax," a development to which neither Homer Simpson nor his fellow Springfielders take too kindly. In turn, they find themselves a convenient scapegoat: immigrants. Venting his displeasure with the town's immigrant population, Moe the bartender fumes, "You know what really aggravazes me? It's them immigants. They wants all the benefits of living in Springfield, but they cain't even bother to learn themselves the language." In concurrence, Homer adds, "Hey, those are exactly my sentimonies."

Those "sentimonies" are as fictional as they are factual, particularly following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. While most problems faced by native-born and immigrant alike are settled on television by episode's end, the same cannot be said for the real- world complications of a growing immigrant population in an increasingly security-minded nation.

"There are legitimate national-security concerns which cannot be ignored, but on the other hand there has to be a realization of the role immigrants play in our workforce," says Paul Harrington of Boston's Northeastern University. Harrington and his colleagues at the university's Center for Labor Market Studies recently released an extensive examination of the impact of foreign-born workers on the size and shape of the U.S. labor market during the last decade.

While the U.S. economy grew rapidly during the 1990s, generating nearly 24 million new jobs, the number of native-born workers declined. The labor market quickly was balanced by the nearly 14 million net new arrivals in the United States during that decade. Analyzing data gathered from the Census Bureau and the Current Population Survey (CPS), the researchers found that new immigrants accounted for 50 percent of the growth of the U.S. labor force. For purposes of the study, residents of Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, although they are U.S. citizens, were included in the "foreign-born" category, and the study excluded military employees.

The influx, however, was not spread evenly across the national landscape. In the New England states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont), all of the growth in the labor force was attributable to new foreign immigration. The 10 states least dependent on new immigrant labor (contributing between 3 and 10 percent of workforce growth) mostly were located in the South and Rocky Mountain regions (normally thought of as immigrant-heavy states).

According to the Department of Labor, foreign-born workers accounted for almost two-thirds of the increase in the number of men in the labor force and for more than one-third of the increase in the number of women. Foreign-born residents also accounted for large shares of the growth of the Asian and Hispanic labor forces - about 83 percent of the increase among Asians and 64.7 percent of the increase among Hispanics. Nor is today's immigrant community your father's immigrant community. In 1960, about three in four new immigrants came from European nations, while today 15.9 percent of the immigrant population comes from Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

Adding another statistical layer to the debate was a November report issued by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Using data similar to that of the researchers at Northeastern, CIS reported the levels of entrepreneurship among immigrants at 10 percent, hard on the heels of the native-born at 11 percent. But within the immigrant community there are further differences. Individuals migrating from South Korea, Iran, Italy, Pakistan and Canada have a higher percentage of self-employment than the national average. On the other hand, those immigrating from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Mexico and El Salvador show the lowest propensity for entering the entrepreneurial class.

Harrington says the goal of the study was to identify the connection between immigration and the labor market and to add focus to the role immigrants play in American life. "Any kind of debate about immigration must include a debate on these factors. In addition, states also have to start thinking about the impact and need to fashion state policy according to the nature of their own labor demand and demographics," he says.

While recommending action on the federal level, Harrington says states can ill afford to delay implementing policy prescriptives because immigrants are constituting a higher share of the younger workforce and the long-term impact will be greater as native-born males retire. For example, Harrington notes that of workers between the ages of 16-24, "immigrants have a higher workforce attachment [participate in the workforce] than their native-born counterparts by about a 20 percentage point difference."

State action also is required in light of the differing experiences with assimilation and market needs in the various sectors of the economy and regions of the country. An October report by Northeastern University more closely examined immigration and the Northeast and its implications on workforce-development policy. Although New England's share of foreign-born workers was almost identical to the national share, within the region itself there were noticeable differences.

For example, Massachusetts had a higher percentage of immigrants in the workforce (17 percent) than either Vermont (3 percent) or Maine (2 percent). In recent years, state policymakers have focused more attention on the increase of new-immigrant labor and less on the declining percentage of native-born male workers in the region, which saw a decline of almost 250,000 between 1990 and 2001. Further complicating workforce issues is the fact that while immigrants represent a significant percentage of the workforce, they have a disproportionate share (30 percent) of working-age individuals without a high-school diploma and with a more-limited English proficiency, according to the Northeastern study.

The influx of less-educated workers has "pushed down the real and relative earnings position of school dropouts, including the native- born. The deterioration in the real wages and earnings of native- born school dropouts has reduced their labor supply and increased their exposure to poverty and economic dependency among both adult men and women," the study adds.

The withdrawal of these individuals from employment has reduced the size of the region's workforce, as well as the "potential output and has contributed to the fiscal problems of federal, state and local governments, given their lower tax payments and their increased reliance on both cash and in-kind transfer payments to support themselves and their families."

The impact on immigrants who have limited education and equally limited English proficiency is increased rates of poverty and dependence on welfare programs. According to the March 2002 Current Population Survey, 16.1 percent of immigrants live in poverty. Among those who arrived in the United States between 1990 and 2002, the rate is 19.9 percent. So, the immigration debate likely will reach beyond the issue of whether to close the borders.

"I think it will have some impact on the [welfare-reform reauthorization] debate especially since 9/11, where there is more sensitivity to immigration issues. However, the rationales for the overall welfare provisions were quite different than those of the immigration-provisions [debate in the 107th Congress] because it really had to do with a set of questions about eligibility," argues Van Doorn Ooms, a senior fellow at the Committee for Economic Development. Included in the farm bill was a provision returning to resident aliens eligibility for food stamps and other government assistance.

But with projections that the Latino vote will increase from almost 6 million in 2000 to almost 7.9 million in 2004, the immigrant community cannot be ignored. Nor should its interests be oversimplified.

The Pew Hispanic Center found that 48 percent of Latinos who are registered voters named education as their top priority, while 39 percent named the economy. And while 48 percent of registered Latino voters think there are too many immigrants, 40 percent think there are the right amount. While 74 percent of foreign-born Latinos believe undocumented workers are a benefit, only 54 percent of native-born Latinos concur.

Jennifer G. Hickey is a writer for Insight.

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