Little relationship between immigration and unemployment, studies show

The current economic crisis has intensified the tendency to cast immigrants as scapegoats for this country’s economic problems. Mexican and Latin American immigrants are portrayed as inveterate job thieves who take “American jobs” from “American workers.” Yet new studies cast doubt on this characterization.

The two studies (a third is in the works), produced by Rob Paral and Associates as special reports for the Immigration Policy Center, are titled: “Untying the Knot, Part I of III: The Unemployment and Immigration Disconnects” and “Untying the Knot, Part II of III, Immigration and Native Born Unemployment Across Racial/Ethnic Groups.' Both can be found online at www.immigrationpolicy.org.

The first study attempts to answer the general question of whether new immigration contributes to unemployment. The study compares census regions, states and counties in terms of the correlation between the unemployment level and the proportion of relatively new immigrants in the population. Contrary to the expectations of anti-immigrant zealots, no correlation between new immigration and unemployment can be demonstrated. In fact, there are many examples which seem to go the other way.

“Recent immigrants comprise 8.4 percent of the Pacific region (California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii), but only 2.8 percent of the population of the East North Central Region (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin). Yet these two regions have nearly the same unemployment rate: 10.8 percent in the Pacific region and 10.0 percent in the East North Central region.

“In counties with lowest unemployment rates (below 4.8 percent) 4.6 percent of the population is composed of recent immigrants. But in counties with the highest unemployment rates (over 13.4 percent) only 3.1 percent of the population is composed of recent immigrants.”

The authors conclude that variations in the unemployment rate by county do not correlate with levels of new immigration, but rather reflect other things: Whether a county is in a metropolitan concentration or not, and whether manufacturing has been a part of a county’s economic life or not. They find that non metropolitan counties have higher unemployment rates (9.4 percent of labor force) than metropolitan ones (8.3 percent), but non-metropolitan counties have far fewer recent immigrants (1.3 percent) than do metropolitan ones (5.4 percent).

Similarly, manufacturing counties have higher unemployment rates (9.9 percent) than do non-manufacturing ones (8.1 percent), but fewer new immigrants (2.1 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively).

Today, new immigrants are typically working in construction and service industries rather than manufacturing, a situation different from that of 100 years ago.

In other words, immigrants are not to blame for closing auto factories and steel mills, the corporate owners are. At any rate, if new immigration were any kind of a contributing factor in unemployment, you would expect opposite results to these.

The second study, “Immigration and Native Born Unemployment Across Racial/Ethnic Groups,' uses similar methodology to try to determine if new immigration is contributing to higher unemployment rates among certain groups of native-born workers, especially African-Americans.

The authors conclude that “States and metropolitan areas with the highest shares of recent immigrants in the labor force do not necessarily have the highest unemployment rates among native born blacks, whites, Hispanics or Asians. Nor do locales with the highest rates of unemployment among native born blacks, whites Hispanics or Asians necessarily have the highest share of recent immigrants in the labor force.”

Again, there are examples of states with high immigration having relatively low unemployment. “In Maine, recent immigrants are only 1 percent of the labor force, while in California they are 8 percent of the labor force. Yet native born Blacks in California have an unemployment rate that is about 3 percentage points lower than native born blacks in Maine.”

The authors conclude that higher unemployment levels among African Americans are not related to immigration, but to things such as “levels of educational attainment and work skills.” They should have added ongoing racial discrimination in hiring and on the job.

The studies are very limited both conceptually and methodologically (the results of the 2010 census will help clarify some rough areas), but are convincing as far as they go.

Of course, anti-immigrant bigots will not be convinced by these studies, or any studies that anybody might conceivably put out. The anti-immigrant crowd’s method of analysis is to find a social problem (unemployment, crime, taxes, the mortgage crisis, the health care financing crisis, swine flu, salmonella in the tomato crop etc.) and then try to find a way to pin it on “Mexican illegals.”

They then highlight anecdotal evidence, often about individual cases instead of statistically detectable patterns, to bolster their bigoted arguments, and ignore contrary evidence such as these two studies. They are helped to do this by media hacks like Lou Dobbs of CNN’s cable programming, and the whole yammering Fox News crowd.

This is important since on June 1, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win labor federations, backed by a large number of immigrants’ rights, civic, community and religious organizations, will be announcing a new legislative program for comprehensive immigration reform, which will include a mechanism to legalize the status of most undocumented immigrants in the country. It is a sure bet that all the misinformation about immigrants taking jobs and causing crime waves will be trotted out by the ultra right to oppose this effort.

Emile Schepers is a political activist in Virginia and writes frequently on immigration and civil liberties.