By Rob Paral
New data from the 2005 American Community Survey (ACS), released by the Census Bureau on August 15, 2006, underscore the extent to which immigration continues to fuel the expansion of the U.S. labor force. The foreign-born population includes legal immigrants who come here on permanent and temporary visas for work, study, and family reunification, as well as an estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants who come for the same reasons but are generally precluded from obtaining visas by shortcomings in the U.S. immigration system.
Since most legal and undocumented immigrants alike come to the United States to work, it is no surprise that they are moving to all regions of the country. While the majority of immigrants still settle in traditional “gateway” states such as California, Florida, New York, and Texas, growing numbers also are settling in “non-traditional” destinations like South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.
Moreover, immigration is stabilizing the populations of many Northeastern states such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Yet the continued growth of the immigrant population and its dispersion to new locales does not imply that native-born workers are being displaced or otherwise disadvantaged by the influx of foreign-born workers. Quite the opposite, in fact. Immigrants are going where there are job openings and economic opportunities.
As a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center concludes: “Between 2000 and 2004, there was a positive correlation between the increase in the foreign born population and the employment of native-born workers in 27 states and the District of Columbia,” which “accounted for 67% of all native-born workers and include all the major destination states for immigrants.”
The primary reason that immigrants don’t have a negative impact on the majority of native-born workers is that they aren’t competing for the same jobs. The U.S. population is growing older and better educated, while the U.S. economy continues to create a large number of jobs that favor younger workers with little formal education.
As a result, immigrants increasingly are filling jobs at the less-skilled end of the occupational spectrum for which relatively few native-born workers are available.
Not surprisingly, few of these better educated (and older) native-born workers are willing or able to fill the frequently strenuous less-skilled jobs that don’t even require a high-school education. But immigrants are. That immigrants come here to fill available jobs is evident in the fact that, as of 2005, 94 percent of adult male undocumented immigrants and 86 percent of adult male legal immigrants were in the labor force.
As Congress debates competing proposals for comprehensive immigration reform, it would do well to pay close attention to these trends. Immigrants are already an integral part of U.S. society and an indispensable part of the U.S. labor force.
Although the largest immigrant populations are still concentrated in a relatively small number of states, immigration growth rates are highest in “non-traditional” destinations in the South and Midwest. For instance, the number of immigrants in South Carolina grew by 47.8 percent in just the 2000-2005 period. In Georgia (which has the ninth largest immigrant population in the United States), the foreign-born population increased by almost 39 percent in five years.
In many Northeastern and Midwestern states which have aging populations and are experiencing out-migration and low fertility rates among natives, immigration plays an especially critical role in maintaining population size. Massachusetts is the most striking example. New immigration since 2000 actually exceeded overall population growth, suggesting that the state would have experienced a net population decline in the absence of immigration.
Naturalized immigrants are making up an increasing share of the potential electorate in states with large immigrant populations. Nowhere is this more evident than in California, which not only has a large immigrant population, but also was the site of large-scale naturalization drives in the 1990s. Today, naturalized immigrants comprise one in five voting-age adults in California.
The growth of the immigrant population since 2000, as well as the dispersion of immigration to new destinations and its role in shoring up the populations of some states, highlights the profound importance of immigration to the U.S. labor force.
A recent study by the Migration Policy Institute concluded, immigrant workers will likely account for between one-third and one-half of total U.S. labor-force growth through 2030. The breadth and depth of this phenomenon contrasts with the failure of Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform to adjust our nation’s immigration laws to match demographic reality.
Much more is needed in terms of admissions policy, including new categories of permanent and temporary visas for workers, family members, students, and other visitors, as well as the lifting of arbitrary numerical caps on immigration. Lawmakers also need to devote greater attention to settlement policy, such as English-language instruction and assistance with meeting other requirements for naturalization, to better integrate immigrants into U.S. society and increase their contributions to the U.S. economy. One can only hope that our lawmakers finally open their eyes to the demographic march of immigration.
Rob Paral is a Research Fellow with the Immigration Policy Center; he is also a Fellow with the Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.