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Many New Jobs Going to Noncitizens

A study finds that immigrants are being hired for almost 3 in 10 positions, which could limit the benefit to Bush.

June 16, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Immigrants are filling nearly three out of every 10 new jobs in the rebounding U.S. economy, a development that may dilute the political dividend to President Bush from an election-year recovery, a study to be released today concludes.

The report by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center found that workers who were not U.S. citizens claimed 378,496 jobs out of a net increase of 1.3 million from the first three months of 2003 through the first three months of this year.

The share of jobs going to noncitizens -- 28.5% -- was particularly notable because workers who were not U.S. citizens accounted for fewer than 9% of all those holding jobs in the United States.

"The proportion of new jobs captured by noncitizens was ... much larger than their share of overall employment," said the report, prepared by labor economist Rakesh Kochhar. "Thus, the political impact of job gains may be damped by the fact that noncitizens are benefiting disproportionately from the turnaround in the labor market."

Roberto Suro, director of the center, said in an interview that "the turnaround is being fueled to a substantial extent by the demand for immigrant labor. And as a result, a substantial chunk of the new jobs are going to people who are not voters."

The study is likely to sharpen the debate about the role of immigrant workers in America, the quality of new jobs and the impact of globalization. Most economists have tended to minimize the impact of large numbers of immigrants entering the U.S. job market, but the Pew findings may bolster those who challenge that view.

The high proportion of new jobs going to immigrants may reflect the fact that the current recovery has thus far been different from most past upturns. In recent months, as overall job growth has begun to improve, most of the new jobs appear to have come in categories that require relatively low skills and pay relatively low wages -- the kinds of jobs for which many immigrants are strong competitors.

In the past, the early stages of economic recoveries have been marked by growth in industrial jobs that pay above-average wages.

Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute think tank, said his analysis supported the idea that "the occupations that are gaining are on the low end."

He added that his own research showed that the recovery had not paid much of a dividend in terms of rising wages. "We see wage growth far less than you would expect at this stage," he said.

The Pew report also found that, while Latino immigrants were gaining jobs, the weekly earnings of Latinos as a whole -- including the native-born and those who were long-term U.S. residents -- had declined in comparison to those of whites and African Americans.

The center, which specializes in social and economic research on the U.S. Latino population, based its findings on an analysis of government surveys used to determine the unemployment rate. The study is the first to compare the job gains of citizens and noncitizens in the current economic recovery.

The underlying data used in the report do not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. However, a large proportion of Latino workers who arrived recently are believed to be undocumented. An estimated 8 million to 12 million U.S. residents are illegal immigrants.

Bush and Democratic congressional leaders are on record as favoring more liberal U.S. immigration policies.

The president has proposed a guest-worker program open to illegal immigrants already here and to migrants wishing to come in the future; guest workers could stay for up to six years. Democrats favor granting green cards to illegal immigrants already here, but restricting the entry of future guest workers.

The debate is taking place amid long-term demographic and economic shifts in the United States. Latinos and Asians are the fastest-growing ethnic groups within the American population, and immigrants are heavily represented in both communities. At the same time, U.S. birthrates have long been in decline.

"Non-Hispanic population growth is basically at a standstill," Kochhar said. That leaves immigration in an increasingly prominent role, both in the growth of the U.S. labor force and in the total population. It may account for the disproportionate share of new jobs going to immigrants, Kochhar said.

Proponents of restricting immigration said the findings suggested that a broader cross-section of American employers had developed a preference for undocumented workers.

"When we think about job creation -- that it must be good for Americans -- that may not be what's going on exactly," said Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors curbs on immigration.

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