Expert Commentary

Immigration reform, Latinos and emerging dynamics

2012 selection of recent scholarship on immigration- and immigrant-related issues such as their effect on the job market, language attitudes and parenthood.

As the November 2012 national election demonstrated, the Hispanic electorate has increasing political clout, and projections show that this power will only increase in the coming decades.

Immigration reform proposals now being considered by Congress are poised to ignite a strong debate not only about rights and citizenship, but about the economic dynamics of America’s current immigration situation. Behind the headline-grabbing news events and debates, the research world is focusing on a variety of emerging and structural issues, such as the apparent “end” of farm labor abundance for U.S. agricultural firms. The Washington Post’s “Wonkblog” usefully highlights a variety of other economic research relating to immigration broadly, particularly how it affects growth and U.S. workers and wages.

At 52 million strong in 2011, Hispanics are the largest minority group in the United States — some 16.7% of the overall population, according to the Census Bureau. Recent research has revealed that while Mexico was once a significant source of new arrivals, the economic crisis and demographic changes may have reduced inflows to zero — or to negative numbers — and the unauthorized population stands at about 11.1 million. Migration away from traditional “gateway states” into rural and suburban areas in the South and MidWest is changing the demographic complexion of America. And new, softened deportation rules for young, unauthorized immigrants will likely change dynamics for many Latino families.

Resistance to immigration is a reliable election-season issue in many states, but often is sparked by national issues, not regional ones. “Get tough” laws have been on the rise, as have federal enforcement actions. A 2013 Migration Policy Institute report details the escalating costs and scope of such enforcement. However, some of the consequences are unintended — reduced farm exports, for example, or even a possible decline in public safety. Declining birthrates in the U.S. have even caused a shortfall in native-born low-skilled labor. For journalists looking for insights on such issues, the Pew Hispanic Center remains an excellent resource.

For deeper historical perspective — and for a sense of how history repeats itself in terms of nativist immigration fears and restriction policy — see the 2013 paper “The Moment of Transition: State Officials, the Federal Government, and the Formation of American Immigration Policy,” published in The Journal of American History.

Aggregated below are some recent reports and academic studies on U.S. immigration, reform and related topics, with a special emphasis on Latinos:



“Unauthorized Immigrants: 11.1 Million in 2011”
Passel, Jeffrey; Cohn, D’Vera. Pew Hispanic Center, December 2012.

Findings: “There were 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. in March 2011, unchanged from the previous two years and a continuation of the sharp decline in this population since its peak in 2007, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center. The estimate for 2011 is not statistically different from totals for 2010 (11.2 million) or 2009 (11.1 million). The number of unauthorized immigrants peaked in 2007 at 12 million, and the decline since then has been the first significant decrease following two decades of growth.”


“Unauthorized Alien Students: Issues and ‘DREAM Act’ Legislation”
Bruno, Andorra. Congressional Research Service, March 2011.

Findings: If the 2010 DREAM Act had been enacted, more than 2.1 million individuals would have been eligible to apply to become long-term permanent residents. “This total included estimates of individuals who, on the date of enactment, would already have met the substantive requirements under the bill for conditional status (or for both conditional status and the removal of the condition), as well as estimates of individuals who, on the date of enactment, would have met some, but not all, of the requirements for conditional status.” Of the 2.1 million eligible to apply, approximately 934,000 were children under age 18 in elementary or secondary school. Based on past trends, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that approximately 825,000 (38%) of those eligible under the legislation would achieve lawful permanent status.


“Net Migration from Mexico Falls to Zero — and Perhaps Less.”
Pew Research Center, April 2012.

Introduction: “After four decades that brought 12 million current immigrants — more than half of whom came illegally — the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed. The standstill appears to be the result of many factors, including the weakened U.S. job and housing construction markets, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings and the long-term decline in Mexico’s birth rates…. Some 30% of all current U.S. immigrants are Mexican-born. Beyond its size, the most distinctive feature of the modern Mexican wave has been the unprecedented share of immigrants who have come to the U.S. illegally. Just over half (51%) of all current Mexican immigrants are unauthorized, and some 58% of the estimated 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. are Mexican.


“Ten Economic Facts about Immigration” (PDF)
Greenstone, Michael; Looney, Adam. The Brookings Institution, Policy Memo, September 2010.
Excerpt: “[W]e explore some of the questions frequently raised around immigration in the United States and provide facts drawn from publicly available data sets and the academic literature. Most Americans agree that the current U.S. immigration system is flawed. Less clear, however, are the economic facts about immigration—the real effects that new immigrants have on wages, jobs, budgets, and the U.S. economy—facts that are essential to a constructive national debate. These facts paint a more nuanced portrait of American immigration than is portrayed in today’s debate. Recent immigrants hail from many more countries than prior immigrants; they carry with them a wide range of skills from new PhDs graduating from American universities to laborers without a high school degree. Most recent immigrants have entered the United States legally, but around 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently live and work in America; the majority of these unauthorized workers settled here more than a decade ago. Each of these immigrant groups affects the U.S. economy in varied ways that should be considered in the current debate around immigration reform.”


“Unauthorized Immigrants: Length of Residency, Patterns of Parenthood”
Taylor, Paul; Lopez, Mark Hugo; Passel, Jeffrey; Motel, Seth. Pew Hispanic Center, December 2011.

Overview: Overall, 35% of unauthorized adult immigrants have lived in the U.S. for more than 15 years; 28% for 10 to 14 years; 22% for 5 to 9 years; and 15% for fewer than 5 years. Additionally, 39% of Hispanic adults who are not legal residents say they attend religious services weekly. About 4.7 million people (46% of unauthorized adult immigrants today) are parents of children age 17 or under. By contrast, only 38% of legal immigrants and 29% of U.S.-born adults across the population are currently parents of children who are minors. There were almost 390,000 deportations in 2010, twice as many as in 2000. About 73% of deportees in 2010 originally came from Mexico.


“Who Doesn’t Value English? Debunking Myths About Mexican Immigrants’ Attitudes Toward the English Language”
Dowling, Julie A.; Ellison, Christopher G.; Leal, David L. Social Science Quarterly, April 2012. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2012.00850.x.

Abstract: “In recent years, immigration has become a central focus of political scrutiny. Much of the negativity directed toward the largely Mexican immigrant population asserts that they do not wish to learn English and acclimate to the dominant culture of the United States. Very little research, however, has explored how Mexican immigrants or Mexican Americans assess the value of English proficiency…. Our findings reveal the high importance that Spanish speakers, as well as many non-U.S. citizen Mexican immigrants, place on English proficiency. Furthermore, the results indicate that Spanish speakers are actually most likely to stress the importance of English.”


“Politicized Places: When Immigrants Provoke Opposition”
Hopkins, Daniel J. American Political Science Review, 2010, Vol. 104, No. 1, 40-60. doi: 10.1017/S0003055409990360.

Findings: When the immigration issue is not producing national headlines, established residents in changing counties are just 0.1% more likely to want a decrease in immigration than people living in counties that are demographically static. During a period of high national attention to immigration, anti-immigration attitudes among established residents in fast-changing counties increase by 9.9%. When immigration is not nationally prominent, residents of fast-changing counties are 7.3% less likely to hold pro-immigration attitudes than those counties where the population mix is stable. That gap increases to 15.1% when immigration becomes a prominent national issue. A survey of anti-immigrant local proposals from 2000-2006 shows that 58% came about during or just after immigration reform had been raised prominently as a national issue.


“Networks of Opportunity: Gender, Race and Job Leads”
Steve McDonald, Nan Lin, Dan Ao. Social Problems, August 2009, Vol. 56, No. 3, 385-402. doi: 10.1525/sp.2009.56.3.385.

Abstract: “Nationally representative survey data reveal significant white male advantage in the number of job leads received through routine conversations when compared to white women and Hispanics. Differences in social network resources (social capital) partly explain the deficit among Hispanics, but fail to account for the job lead gap between white women and men. Further analyses show that inequality in the receipt of job information is greatest at the highest levels of supervisory authority, where white males receive substantially more job leads than women and minorities.”


“Implications of Immigration Policies for U.S. Farm Sector and Workforce”
Devadoss, Stephen; Luckstead, Jeff. Economic Inquiry, July 2011. doi:10.1111/j.1465-7295.2010.00300.x.

Abstract: “We develop a theoretical model using migration and trade theory to examine the effects of domestic and border enforcement policies on unauthorized workers and the U.S. agricultural sector. The theoretical results show that heightened immigration policies increase the illegal farm wage rate, and reduce the employment of unauthorized farm workers and exports. The empirical analysis show that increased domestic enforcements curtail the number of undocumented farm workers by an average of 8,947 and commodity exports to Mexico by an average of $180 million. The tighter border control curbs illegal farm workers by 8,147 and reduces farm exports by $181 million.”


“Impact of Low-Skilled Immigration on the Youth Labor Market”
Smith, Christopher L. Journal of Labor Economics January 2012, Vol. 30, No. 1. doi: 10.1086/662073.

Abstract: “The employment to population rate of high school-aged youth has fallen by about 20 percentage points since the late 1980s. One potential explanation is increased competition from substitutable labor, such as immigrants. I demonstrate that the increase in the population of less educated immigrants has had a considerably more negative effect on employment outcomes for native youth than for native adults. At least two factors are at work: there is greater overlap between the jobs that youth and less educated adult immigrants traditionally do, and youth labor supply appears more responsive to immigration-induced wage changes.”


“Luxury, Necessity, and Anachronistic Workers: Does the United States Need Unskilled Immigrant Labor?”
Bean, Frank D., et al. American Behavioral Scientist, April 2012. doi: 10.1177/0002764212441784.

Abstract: “Recent social, demographic, and economic trends have reduced the availability of less-skilled native workers, while new low-education immigrant workers compete with other less-skilled immigrants for available low-skilled jobs. Declines in native fertility to substantially below replacement levels, together with native educational upgrading, have substantially reduced the size of the less-skilled native-born labor pool in the past 30 years, even below the level of need. This trend cannot be explained by declines in low-skilled manufacturing employment. Other factors also serve to exacerbate the size of the shortfall in the availability of less-skilled natives, including mismatches in the locations of low-education natives and less-skilled jobs. Nativity differences in health, physical disability, and substance abuse also operate to widen the gap. The resulting void has largely been filled by increasing numbers of less-skilled immigrant workers. These patterns underscore the need for public policies that provide both less-skilled labor and reductions in social and economic inequalities in the United States.”


“Labor Market Outcomes for Legal Mexican Immigrants Under the New Regime of Immigration Enforcement”
Gentsch, Kerstin; Massey, Douglas S. Social Science Quarterly, September 2011, Vol. 92, Issue 3, 875-893. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00795.x

Abstract: “Drawing on data from the Mexican Migration Project, we create a data file that links age, education, English-language ability, and cumulative U.S. experience in three legal categories (documented, undocumented, guest worker) to the occupational status and wage attained by migrant household heads on their most recent U.S. trip. We find that the wage and occupational returns to various forms of human capital generally declined after harsher policies were imposed and enforcement dramatically increased after 1996, especially for U.S. experience and English-language ability. These results indicate that the labor-market status of legal immigrants has deteriorated significantly in recent years as larger shares of the migrant workforce came to lack labor rights, either because they were undocumented or because they held temporary visas that did not allow mobility or bargaining over wages and working conditions.


“The Paradox of Law Enforcement in Immigrant Communities: Does Tough Immigration Enforcement Undermine Public Safety?”
Kirk, David; Papachristos, Andrew V.; Fagan, Jeffrey; Tyler, Tom. Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 11-281, October 2011.

Findings: “Our study finds that immigrant communities, even more so than neighborhoods populated predominantly by native-born citizens, are less cynical of the law and more cooperative with legal authority. [This] calls into question the rationale of enacting ‘get tough’ immigration policies, particularly against non-criminal aliens. Present-day proposals of immigration reform will not likely benefit public safety. Rather, Draconian immigration laws such as Arizona Senate Bill 1070 and Alabama House Bill 56 will likely undermine the very public safety that they were purportedly designed to protect.”


“Migrating to Opportunities: How Family Migration Motivations Shape Academic Trajectories among Newcomer Immigrant Youth”
Hagelskamp, Carolin; Suárez-Orozco, Carola; Hughes, Diane. The Journal of Social Issues, Volume 66, Issue 4, 2010. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.2010.01672.x

Findings: Work and educational motivations are often seen as “mutually reinforcing,” the authors write, but they often produce different academic outcomes. Indeed, “work-related migration motivations seemed to conflict with educational migration goals.” For parents whose primary motivation was educational opportunities for their children, there was a positive association with higher GPAs. Among migrants who cited work prospects for children as a primary motivation, there was a decline in GPA as students entered adolescence. Contrary to the commonly held notion that educational opportunities for children motivate most immigrants, the majority emphasized employment prospects, regardless of national origin. There was some differentiation among groups: “Dominican and Mexican parents mentioned schooling more often than did Central Americans. Schooling was also more salient in the migration narratives of Dominican parents when compared to Haitian parents.”


“‘And Who Is My Neighbor?’ Religion and Immigration Policy Attitudes”
Knoll, Benjamin R. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2009, 48(2), 313-331.

Conclusion: “Quantitative evidence … demonstrates that those who attend religious services more frequently have a greater likelihood of possessing liberal immigration policy preferences. Members of minority religions, notably Jews and Latterday Saints, are also more likely to empathize with the plight of undocumented immigrants and support liberal immigration reform measures…. Perhaps the most salient lesson learned from this study is that religion not only exerts an independent effect on individual immigration policy attitudes, but that the effect is as strong as other traditional determinants of immigration attitudes. Indeed, these results demonstrate that the effect of religion is comparable in magnitude to other significant determinants of immigration attitudes such as socioeconomic characteristics, economic perceptions, and racial/ethnic context.”


“Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Among Whites, Blacks and Hispanics”
Taylor, Paul; et al. Pew Hispanic Center, July 2011.

Summary: The ratio between the median wealth (assets minus debts) of white households versus that of black and Hispanic households is the largest since the government started collecting such data in 1984, and approximately twice what it had been before the Great Recession of 2007-2009. From 2005 to 2009, inflation-adjusted median household wealth dropped by 66% among Hispanic households, 54% among Asian households, 53% among black households, and 16% among white households. In 2009, typical wealth (again, a family’s assets minus its debts) had dropped to $5,677 for black households, $6,325 for Hispanic households, and $113,149 for white households.


Tags: research roundup, Latino, Hispanic

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