Immigrants bouncing back from recession faster than native-born workers

Liz Goodwin

A new study indicates that immigrant workers have found jobs faster than their native-born counterparts after the economic downturn in 2008.

Between June 2009 and June 2010, the unemployment rate among native-born workers rose to 9.7 percent, from 9.2 percent. Among immigrants over the same period, the rate fell to 8.7 percent, from 9.3 percent, the Pew Hispanic Center report notes.

So what's going on?

For one thing, immigrants--legal and illegal--are more flexible during an economic downturn because they are more willing to move to where jobs are, policy analyst Aaron Terrazas of the Migration Policy Institute tells The Upshot. Because illegal immigrants don't qualify for unemployment insurance, they often have no choice but to get another job, even if it's very low paid, part time or otherwise undesirable. Immigrants "tend to respond more quickly to mismatches in the economy" than native workers do, Terrazas says.

This flexibility explains why median immigrant pay has plunged 4.5 percent from 2009 to 2010, while native-born workers' wages have remained flat.

Recessions also tend to hit immigrants before they hit native-born workers, so job losses fell on the immigrant community as early as 2007. Native-born workers did not begin feeling the effects until fall 2008.

Though illegal immigration has been falling since 2005, the report may become a talking point among politicians who advocate stricter controls on immigration. Terrazas says politicians have not picked up on the slowdown in illegal and legal immigration as the economy at large has faltered. (Read more about how the recession sparked a global crackdown on immigrants.)

Michael Lind of the nonpartisan New America Foundation think tank says the report may be used to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment. The Pew study debunks the frequent contention that illegal immigrants take jobs that Americans don't want--like seasonal fruit picking on a farm, for example. Pew researchers found that immigrants have been gaining jobs in the education and health care sectors.

"If the foreign-born are making gains in health care and education, then a much stronger case can be made that they're competing with American workers," Lind says.

The report also shows that native-born workers need to become flexible in order to bounce back from the recession, Lind argues. Because unemployment benefits are state-based, laid-off workers often cannot move to better job markets in the same way that nonqualifying immigrants can.

(Photo: Migrant farm workers in Arizona/AP)