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Recession hits immigrant workforce harder than native workforce

April 30, 2009|Teresa Watanabe

Immigrants have been hit harder than native-born Americans by the recession, with larger increases in joblessness among both educated and uneducated workers, according to a study released today.

Immigrants in California -- both legal and illegal -- fared particularly poorly, with jobless rates here nearly tripling to 12.2% in the first quarter of 2009, compared with 4.5% in the third quarter of 2007, according to the report by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based research group that supports immigration restrictions. The study is based on U.S. Census statistics.

Nationally, the immigrant jobless rate rose to 9.7% from 4.1% during that period, while the rate for native-born workers rose to 8.6% from 4.8%.

The jobless rate for Latino immigrants grew twice as fast as that for non-Latino immigrants, the study showed.

The figures represent a change from the last five years, when the housing boom created a plethora of construction and other jobs and helped boost the immigrant employment rate above that of natives.

Steven Camarota, the study's coauthor, said many of the immigrant job losses came in low-skill occupations hit hard by the recession. In construction, for instance, the immigrant jobless rate climbed to 20% in the first quarter of 2009 from 4.7% 18 months earlier. About one-fourth of all workers nationally and two-thirds in Los Angeles County are foreign-born. Sergio Rascon of the Laborers' International Union of North America Local 300, whose Los Angeles County construction workers are overwhelmingly Latino and heavily immigrant, said the recession's fallout is the worst he's ever seen. He said more than 1,000 workers are currently listed on the union's out-of-work list; at the height of the housing boom a few years ago, he said, there were none.

In downtown Los Angeles alone, he said, the out-of-work list has tripled since last year, to 600 members.

"Never did I ever think it would be as bad as it is now," Rascon said.

The heavily immigrant sector of janitorial services is also reeling from widespread job losses. Downturns in the home financing industry in Orange County and among high-tech firms in Silicon Valley have particularly hurt, said Mike Garcia, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1877, which represents about 25,000 janitors statewide.

San Jose-based Cisco Systems Inc. recently cut its janitorial staff to 108 from 210 -- a move the union is protesting.

"We've never experienced this kind of pressure on janitors before," Garcia said.

The jobless rate among immigrants with less than a high school education remained lower than that of their native-born counterparts.

The picture is worse for educated immigrants. The jobless rate among immigrants with a bachelor's degree rose to 6.3% in the first quarter of 2009 from 2.6% 18 months earlier. Meanwhile, the rate among native-born college graduates rose to 4% from 2.5%.

Manuel Pastor, codirector of the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, said educated immigrants may be faring worse because they tend to face obstacles converting their foreign degrees into U.S. credentials and therefore may work in less-skilled fields subject to higher job losses.

Humara Ahmed, a 42-year-old Pakistani who lives in Palos Verdes, was a millionaire with a college degree, a monthly income as high as $25,000, a six-bedroom home, investment property and her own home-loan and restaurant businesses a few years ago. But as the recession deepened, she lost everything last year. Months of feverish job hunts -- applying for up to 12 jobs a day -- produced nothing.

She trained to become a taxi driver, which didn't pan out. Now she is training to become a food service manager at $10 an hour.

"I couldn't eat or sleep, and cried every day," she said. "I lost confidence in myself."

Camarota said the mounting job losses call into question whether the U.S. should continue to admit so many immigrant workers -- 1.3 million last year. He also said the figures show a "superabundance" of less-educated U.S. workers available for jobs, undercutting the argument to legalize undocumented migrants.

But Pastor said that impending baby boomer retirements will leave the nation in need of immigrant labor.

"As our demographic profile ages, we will need to bring more folks in," he said.

--

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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