By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2006
High levels of immigration in the past 15 years do not appear to have hurt employment opportunities for American workers, according to a new report.
The Pew Hispanic Center analyzed immigration state by state using U.S. Census data, evaluating it against unemployment levels. No clear correlation between the two could be found.
Other factors, such as economic growth, have likely played a larger role in influencing the American job market, said Rakesh Kochhar, principal author of the report and an economist at the Pew Hispanic Center in the District.
"We are simply looking for a pattern across 50 states, and we did not find one," Kochhar said. "We cannot say with certainty that growth in the foreign population has hurt or helped American jobs."
Immigration policy is a central issue in this fall's congressional elections. The report's findings appear to refute the idea -- often voiced by supporters of stricter immigration laws -- that foreign workers depress wages and take jobs from American workers, especially those with less education and fewer skills.
In the 10 states with the top employment rates from 2000 to 2004, for example, five states showed a high influx of immigrants while the other five showed little growth in the foreign-born population. "Even in relatively slow economic times, a relationship fails to reveal itself," Kochhar said.
The Pew Hispanic Center is one of several research groups funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to develop and distribute unbiased information on controversial topics, such as climate change and genetic engineering. The Pew Hispanic Center has published respected polls and reports on the role of Hispanics in the United States.
The study used Census Bureau data to compare the influx of immigrants and unemployment rates in each state between 1990 and 2000, a period of robust economic growth, and between 2000 and 2004, a period of slower growth.
Some economists expressed reservations about the technique yesterday, arguing that such broad statewide data do not give an accurate picture of immigration's effects on the labor market.
"There's an age, gender and educational component to this story that this report does not address," said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.
Between 1990 and 2000, he said, immigrant workers did not take jobs away from American workers "because the strong economy was creating enough jobs to employ everyone who was looking for work." But in the past five years, a subset of the workforce -- native-born men age 16 to 24 with high-school diplomas -- have in fact been displaced by immigrants, he said.
"We argue that immigrant labor has changed the nature of work in a very negative way," Sum said.
The Pew report found that nearly 25 percent of native-born workers live in states where rapid growth of the immigrant population occurred at the same time as above-average employment prospects. Only 15 percent of American workers live in high-immigration states with below-average employment prospects, the report found.
And the 60 percent of American workers living in states with slower immigrant growth did not consistently enjoy higher employment levels, the report showed.
Locally, the lack of any consistent relationship between the inflow of immigrants and native-born employment was apparent.
In the District, both the growth in the foreign-born workforce and the employment rate for native-born workers were below average in 2000 and 2004.
In 2000, Maryland and Virginia had below-average growth in the foreign-born population and above-average employment rates for native-born workers. In 2004, both states experienced above-average growth of both the foreign-born workforce and native-born employment rates.
On the local level, too, some experts disputed the findings of the Pew report. While educated workers with specialized skills are not likely to be displaced by foreign-born workers, young unskilled laborers have felt the pinch in recent years, said Steven A. Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies in the District.
A recent study done by the center shows that the immigrant share of the young workforce in Maryland and Virginia nearly doubled in the past five years, peaking at 22 percent and 15 percent, respectively, in 2005.
"Native workers who have little education in Maryland and Virginia are dropping out of the labor markets in droves" as the number of immigrants grows, he said. "Unskilled workers only account for a fraction of the total economic output, but if immigration plays a role in even a part of [the trend], that's something we should be concerned about."
Census data and estimates show the United States had 28 million immigrants -- legal and illegal -- age 16 and older in 2000, an increase of 61 percent from 1990. By 2004, there were 32 million. The majority are Latinos, followed by Asians. The Pew study did not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants.
The report pointed out that immigrants typically move to booming areas of the country with low unemployment rates.
"It's unclear as to whether immigrant workers help to cause that boom, but they certainly haven't detracted from it," said Randy Capps, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute.