Report: Foreign-born workers gained jobs while native-born lost them

Pew Hispanic Center
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 2:47 AM

Native-born Americans lost more than a million jobs while foreign-born workers gained hundreds of thousands of jobs as the country emerged from a painful recession, according to a new analysis of economic trends.

In April, May and June this year, compared with the same period last year, foreign-born workers gained 656,000 jobs, while native-born workers lost 1.2 million jobs, according to a report issued Friday by the Pew Hispanic Center.

"There is a substantial difference in how the economic recovery is working out for the native-born and the foreign-born," said Rakesh Kochhar, associate director of the center and co-author of the new report. He added that "only the immigrant experience has been a positive one. The native-born experience - the best that can be said is, 'They bled less than in the last year.' "

The report looks at a period where some 100,000 native-born workers were temporarily employed by the 2010 Census - meaning that the true effects of the recession were probably worse for native-born workers than the numbers suggest.

Based on a detailed analysis of Labor Department statistics, the report is sure to inflame the already charged national debate over immigration. It also adds fuel to a growing fire over the larger question of whether immigration is a fundamentally good thing or bad thing for the American economy.

"Our government has continued to bring in more foreign workers the entire time the economy was losing jobs," said Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, a group that seeks to reduce immigration.

As with the larger story of the effect of immigration on the economy, the data in the new report are complex. The report does not explain why foreign-born workers are doing so much better than native-born workers. It is possible, for example, that sectors of the economy that typically employ more foreign-born workers are rebounding faster than sectors that typically employ native-born workers.

Foreign-born workers also did significantly worse than native born workers as the recession began, so it is possible they represent an early warning system for other workers - for both better and worse.

One implication of the data is that the number of unauthorized immigrants entering the United States - a figure that declined during the recession - could rise again as the economy rebounds and jobs accessible to foreign-born workers become available, Kochhar said.

Officials with the American Immigration Council, an immigrant rights organization, rejected the idea that employment among foreign-born and native-born workers was a zero sum game. "Immigrant and native-born workers are not interchangeable, nor do they compete with each other for some fixed number of jobs in the U.S. economy," said Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, a rights group.

The report emphasizes job losses and gains among Hispanic workers because they make up the lion's share of the foreign-born workforce. In construction, foreign-born Hispanics gained 98,000 new jobs between the second quarter of this year and the second quarter of last year while native-born Hispanics lost 133,000 jobs and native born non-Hispanics lost 511,000 jobs.

In the finance, insurance and real estate sector, Hispanic foreign-born workers gained 26,000 jobs, while native-born Hispanic workers lost 18,000 jobs and native born non-Hispanics lost 112,000 jobs.

In some sectors, some native-born workers gained jobs, but those gains were outpaced by the gains of foreign-born workers. In personal and household services, foreign-born Hispanic workers gained 35,000 jobs and native-born Hispanic workers gained 10,000 jobs. Native born non-Hispanics lost 113,000 jobs.

Kochhar, pointing to one factor that might explain the data, said real wages for foreign born workers fell by about 7 percent, while wages for native-born workers remained flat. Foreign-born workers may also be more mobile - and more desperate.

"For the immigrant arriving in the United States for the first time, there are few constraints on where to go," he said. "If the job is in L.A. or Dallas or New York, that is where you are going to go. There is also less access to unemployment benefits so there will be more flexibility on what rates you will take, what job you will do and where you will do it."

Economists are divided over whether immigration is a net benefit for the economy. A recent report by the the Migration Policy Institute and economist Giovanni Peri at the University of California at Davis, suggests that, over a 7-to-10-year period, immigration produces higher wages for native -born workers without harming employment levels - but benefits are concentrated among the highly educated workforce. In the short term, and especially in tough economic times, immigration can hurt lower-educated native-born workers in terms of both available jobs and actual wages, according to the report.

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