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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Nov 3, 2010, 11:47 am

Foreign-Born Workers Have Fared Better in U.S. Since Recession’s End, Report Says

BY Akito Yoshikane

But don't jump to anti-immigrant conclusions

Native-born workers lost 1.2 million jobs since the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, while foreign-born workers added 656,000 jobs during the same period, according to a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center.

The unemployment rate for the foreign-born workforce fell from 9.3 to 8.7 as more of their working-age population—16 and older—entered the labor market. As a result, the immigrant workforce had a greater share of employment, up from 61.7 to 62.3 percent during June 2009 to June 2010.

In contrast, more U.S.-born workers fell out of the labor force and had a smaller share of employment, down from 59.3 to 58.3 in the same period. The joblessness rose 0.5 points from 9.2 to 9.7 percent, in part due to heavy losses in the construction sector. The research, based on government data, says the hiring difference would have been much greater had it not been for jobs added by the Census.

The reasons for the disparity are varied, but Pew writes that one primary cause could be that immigrants, particularly the undocumented, are more willing to take on lower-paying jobs because they don’t qualify for unemployment benefits.

On the surface, the report may provide ammunition to those who paint immigrants as job stealers, but it’s difficult to draw that conclusion based on several factors.

For one, foreign-born workers tend to be more mobile than native-born workers. They’re able to travel to different locations to fill jobs, many times ones that are unstable, Pew says. The report adds that they’re also more prone to changes in the business cycles. Immigrants suffer losses first during recessionary times, and they rebound quicker than native-born workers during recovery.

Immigrant rights groups say that the jobs undertaken by immigrant and native-born workers aren’t the same. The assertion was most recently challenged by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, who joined a campaign with the United Farm Workers challenging people to take on labor-intensive farm work done by migrants.

The Pew report did not record immigration status in the data, but a separate report by the organization estimated that the undocumented workers make up one-third of the labor force.

It isn’t clear yet whether the native-born workforce would have fared differently. Critics often point to immigrants for depressing wages. The report, however, said wages for native-born workers was unchanged. For foreign-workers, they actually saw their pay decline. Despite adding employment, median weekly earnings for immigrant workers fell 4.5 percent from 2009 to 2010.

The Pew report doesn’t report on what impact the foreign-born workforce has on the native-born job seekers. But a separate study by University of California-Davis professor Giovanni Perry found that there is no evidence that immigrants "crowd out U.S.-born workers in either the short or long run." Instead, he writes that they tend to boost productively and income. He writes:

Statistical analysis of state-level data shows that immigrants expand the economy's productive capacity by stimulating investment and promoting specialization. This produces efficiency gains and boosts income per worker. At the same time, evidence is scant that immigrants diminish the employment opportunities of U.S.-born workers.

It’s important to note that jobs are not a zero-sum game and that these job shifts are also part of the nation’s changing demographics. Native-born workers entering the labor force have been outpaced by foreign workers, who have gone from representing 9.7 of the workforce in 1995 to 15.7 percent today. To say that immigrants are somehow hampering the employment for native-born workers based on the results of the Pew report is a spurious conclusion.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He can be reached at akitoyoshikane [at] gmail.com

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