Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: At last, some facts and figures in immigration debate

Construction worker Felipe Diasdado, who came to the U.S. illegally in 1997, spends time at his home in Chicago. He has one of the most common occupations for immigrants without high school diplomas.
Construction worker Felipe Diasdado, who came to the U.S. illegally in 1997, spends time at his home in Chicago. He has one of the most common occupations for immigrants without high school diplomas. Associated Press

Do immigrants “steal” jobs from U.S. citizens? Or do they just take work that Americans don’t want to do anymore?

That tired argument crops up in many a debate about immigration reform, especially during hard times. If you’re like me, one of the biggest frustrations with the whole immigration issue is that it’s full of so much overheated and uninformed shouting – and so few actual facts.

So I was glad to see a study out recently that sheds a little light, showing that low-skilled immigrants (many of whom are undocumented) and native-born Americans are largely not competing for the same jobs.

A top-line number is that 44 percent of the 16 million U.S. workers without a high school education in 2013 were foreign born. A researcher for the Urban Institute went further and looked at what kinds of work these immigrants do, compared to native-born workers without diplomas.

The analysis found some overlap in the most common occupations, including cooks, cashiers and construction workers. But many jobs appear on the immigrant list but not the native-born list, and vice versa, and the differences among workers who didn’t finish high school are bigger than among any other group of workers.

Many immigrants aren’t fluent in English, so they don’t get hired as often for jobs requiring frequent communication, such as waitresses and receptionists. But they often come from less developed countries that prize manual skills, so they become carpenters. Immigrants are also overrepresented in the workforce as farmworkers, manicurists and meat processors.

Native-born workers speak better English, usually have at least some high school and can get jobs requiring licenses, so they go into nursing homes and home health care. They are also overrepresented in the ranks of restaurant hostesses, secretaries and customer service reps.

When you think about it, the findings make perfect sense.

Then, if you look at median wages in California, it’s clear that no one is getting rich in these jobs, immigrant or not. Most of them pay less than the $15-an-hour minimum wage sought by a national movement, and some barely reach the $10 minimum that California starts Jan. 1. Income inequality isn’t going away since this segment of our workforce is only going to grow; the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there will be 4 million more jobs by 2022 that don’t require a high school diploma.

Not only aren’t immigrants stealing jobs, they’re also creating jobs, according to another new study.

The Pew Research Center found that foreign-born workers make up nearly 20 percent of the 14.6 million self-employed and are more likely to work for themselves than native workers. That’s true across all racial groups, but notably Latino immigrants were nearly twice as likely to be self-employed as U.S.-born Hispanics.

So when you add them up, these figures tell us that immigrants are likely producing many more jobs than they may be “stealing.”

Of course, you would never know it from listening to candidates like Donald Trump talking crazy about Mexico sending hordes of rapists across the border. The tone of the debate hasn’t been much better in Congress, which has completely failed to fix our broken immigration system. With new House Speaker Paul Ryan declaring that Congress won’t tackle the issue during the rest of the Obama presidency, it should be front and center in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Let’s hope the candidates make debating points and campaign promises based on actual facts for a change.

By the numbers

Top 10 occupations for immigrant workers without high school diplomas and median hourly wages in California:

  • Maids and housekeepers, $11.21
  • Cooks, $9.36
  • Agricultural workers, $9.18
  • Construction laborers, $18.33
  • Janitors and building cleaners, $12.02
  • Grounds maintenance workers, $12.53
  • Drivers/sales workers, $12.89
  • Freight, stock and material movers, $12.06
  • Carpenters, $24.16
  • Cashiers, $10.27

Sources: Urban Institute, California Employment Development Department