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Migrant studies counter negative images

Immigrants are less likely to go to prison than U.S.-born residents of the same ethnic group and they boost pay for natives, research says.

February 28, 2007|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Two new studies by California researchers counter negative perceptions that immigrants increase crime and job competition, showing that they are incarcerated at far lower rates than native-born citizens and actually help boost their wages.

A study released Tuesday by the Public Policy Institute of California found that immigrants who arrived in the state between 1990 and 2004 increased wages for native workers by an average 4%.

UC Davis economist Giovanni Peri, who conducted the study, said the benefits were shared by all native-born workers, from high school dropouts to college graduates, because immigrants generally perform complementary rather than competitive work.

As immigrants filled lower-skilled jobs, they pushed natives up the economic ladder into employment that required more English or know-how of the U.S. system, he said.

"The big message is that there is no big loss from immigration," Peri said. "There are gains, and these are enjoyed by a much bigger share of the population than is commonly believed."

Another study released Monday by the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center showed that immigrant men ages 18 to 39 had an incarceration rate five times lower than native-born citizens in every ethnic group examined. Among men of Mexican descent, for instance, 0.7% of those foreign-born were incarcerated compared to 5.9% of native-born, according to the study, co-written by UC Irvine sociologist Ruben G. Rumbaut.

Both studies are based on U.S. census data, which includes both legal and illegal immigrants. They were released just days before the U.S. Congress is to restart debate on major immigration reform legislation and as numerous states, including Texas, consider harsh measures against illegal migrants.

The authors say their work shows that immigrants clearly benefit U.S. residents and are being unfairly scapegoated for problems they do not cause.

"There are grossly distorted perceptions between what people think about immigrants and the reality," Rumbaut said. "The old bromide that education is the way to reduce prejudice comes into play here."

Immigration hawks, however, took issue with both studies.

Steven Camarota of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies said the wage study, by examining immigrants only in California, failed to consider their effect on the rest of the country. Immigrants working for lower wages in a California factory, for instance, could keep wages down in a competing enterprise staffed by native-born citizens in another state, he said.

Immigrants, who make up one-third of California's labor force, could also be discouraging natives from moving to the state and taking advantage of higher-paying job opportunities, Camarota said.

And, by examining only wage effects, the study failed to address the declining percentage of native-born adults working in California, Camarota said. Their share of the workforce declined from 65% in 2000 to 62% in 2005, one of the lowest in the country, which could be caused by competition from immigrants, he said.

"The idea that immigrants compete only with other immigrants is absurd on its face," he said, adding that no industry in America employs only immigrants.

Peri said, however, that his study's more detailed analysis of California's employment trends showed no displacement of native-born workers. Other studies have shown that immigration has had a negative effect on African American high school dropouts. But those conclusions were rooted in different assessments of whether blacks performed the same work as immigrants, he said.

Of the crime study, Camarota said the U.S. government had failed to systematically collect 2000 Census data on immigration status from prisons and other institutions. The study's foundational data are therefore flawed, he argued.

But Rumbaut defended his study, saying the results were consistent with other research stretching back a century. They include national immigration studies conducted in 1911 and 1994, work by two Princeton economists examining 1980 and 1990 census data and more recent analyses of homicide rates in three border cities.

The co-author of the crime study was Walter A. Ewing, a research associate at the Immigration Policy Center. Among other findings, the study showed that the gap in incarceration rates between native-born and foreign-born men was wider in California. Incarceration rates, which rose the longer an immigrant was in the country, were highest among high school dropouts. Those of Asian descent generally showed lower incarceration rates and higher educational levels than Latinos.

Despite the data, Rumbaut said, many continue to perpetuate images of crime-prone immigrants.

Last year, the study says, President Bush blamed illegal immigrants for bringing crime to their communities, as did the city of Hazleton, Pa., in passing an ordinance barring them from renting homes or working.

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