The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mexican immigrants will move for low-skill jobs. No one else will.

Recessions are a big shake-up for the economy. Some places gain jobs, and other places lose them, and so people often have to move in search of opportunity. What economists Brian Cadena and Brian Kovak found is that among low-skilled workers (those with a high-school degree or less), Mexican-born immigrants are unique in that they moved quite a bit in search of jobs during the last recession. Native-born low-skilled workers, in contrast, tended to stay in one place regardless of how the local economy was doing.

The researchers looked at 97 cities with large working populations and observed that cities with job growth among low-skill Mexican-born immigrants also saw growth in that population. Cities with job losses saw their Mexican-born immigrants move away. There was no pattern though, for the low-skill native-born, who either did not migrate or tended to migrate for family reasons.

Cadena, of the University of Colorado, and Kovak, of Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College, speculate in the paper that this migration pattern may stem in part from desperation. Many immigrants are undocumented and don’t qualify for unemployment insurance. Moving is tough and costly, but changing cities might have been the only way they could find another job during the recession. It’s also common for Mexicans in the United States to support extended families back home, and so they may feel particularly motivated to find employment.

The result of all this is that Mexican immigrants played a big role in smoothing out labor markets city by city. Cooling cities saw low-skill Mexican workers move out, leaving more job opportunities for the native-born left behind. The cost of moving, though, is the cost of uprooting, and for people like Mario Ramirez who have built lives and families in one place, it’s not a decision that can be made without sacrifice.