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The Numbers Game

Immigration studies start with the same data, but what they see is very different

September 21, 1997|David Friedman | David Friedman, a contributing editor to Opinion, is an international consultant and fellow in the MIT Japan Program

For the first time in recent memory, three immigration studies made front-page news. Each crunched the same primary data, special census extracts called "Public Use Samples." Each highlighted Mexican and Central American immigrants and California. Yet, their messages were dramatically different.

A report published last week by Rand, a Santa Monica think tank, was cautionary and concerned. A Pepperdine study last fall was far more upbeat. And a landmark National Research Council report released last May was surprisingly nonchalant.

How can virtually identical data produce such strikingly different perspectives?

Despite claims of "objectivity," policy studies are profoundly shaped by their researchers' beliefs about the world. Their hidden assumptions lead to different interpretations of the same data. And because value judgments inevitably creep into the analyses, such studies can justify only the broadest social policies.

Rand's study of foreign migration to California, however, contemplates a much more intrusive approach. Its key findings are that poorer Mexicans and Central Americans make up a growing share of California immigration. Unlike immigrants from other countries, the new Latino citizens do not improve their education and income relative to others after they arrive.

The Rand report argues that education is crucial for economic success because low-skill jobs are vanishing from modern California. Poorly educated Latino immigrants increasingly cannot find work; it's likely their children will also be ill-trained for the future. To avoid such problems, the Rand study urges stepped-up immigrant education and social programs, and new laws to restrict less-educated immigrants' entry as demand for their labor falls.

Superficially appealing, at least two questionable assumptions undermine the study's logic. The first is the study's belief that low-skill jobs for less-educated immigrants are becoming a thing of the past. It's fashionable to herald the new "information age," when a PhD is required to grill a hamburger. Yet, the most serious complaint about the current U.S. economic expansion--and especially California's recovery--is that only low-wage, low-skill jobs are being created. The Rand study offers little data, and almost none from the state's post-recession period, addressing this view.

The belief that immigrants are increasingly mismatched with contemporary economic needs also seems to contradict the fact that the states absorbing the most Latinos--Texas, Florida, and California--are America's premier job creators, not industrial basket cases. In the last year alone, the three states produced nearly 1 million jobs, 32% of the U.S. total. Since 1994, unemployment has fallen in all high-immigration states, and has declined so rapidly in California that industries that depend on less-skilled immigrant workers, like garment, are suffering critical labor shortages.

Equally shaky is the assumption that if first-generation Latino-immigrant income and education levels are low, their children and grandchildren will be similarly disadvantaged. The report provides little evidence one way or another, but other sources, including previous Rand studies, suggest that by the third or fourth generation, U.S.-born children of Mexican and Central American immigrants do achieve economic parity with others. If so, education programs and immigrant-screening laws to promote Latino social advancement may be unnecessary, if not misguided.

These sorts of concerns led Pepperdine University researcher Gregory Rodriquez to examine immigrant census data from a different perspective. Heavily influenced by his religious studies at UC Berkeley, and by UCLA sociologist David E. Hayes-Bautista and Nobel laureate economist Gary S. Becker, who contend that families and similar groups play key roles in social mobility, Rodriquez explored whether Latino immigrants demonstrate the kinds of mutual commitment and shared sacrifice that compensate for individual disadvantage.

Focused on Southern California, the Pepperdine study found that they did. Foreign-born Latinos in the region--overwhelmingly first-generation Mexican and Central American immigrants--typically have the highest work-participation rates, form households with the largest number of wage earners and maintain the most stable families of any ethnic group. Even the poorest immigrants combine their earnings in highly functional, enduring households to build for the future.

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