Immigrants are critical to the future of metro America

On this Fourth of July, the country celebrates its independence from Great Britain, and the beginning of this grand experiment in democracy. From that point on, the country would be a beacon for people all over the world seeking freedom and opportunity. So it seems fitting, on this independence day, to talk about immigration. A recent report by a friend of BRR, Audrey Singer, and her colleagues at the Brookings Institution turn the standard conversation we have on immigration on its ear. Our own BRR member, Manuel Pastor, covers immigration for the Network, and sat down for a Q&A based on the report.

BRR: What’s the big takeaway from the recent by the Brookings Institution, “The Geography of Immigrant Skills?”

Pastor: My big takeaways from this really excellent work Audrey Singer and the rest of her Brookings team is this: Immigrants are critical to the future of metro America, and the news is actually more positive than portrayed, as their skill levels have been on the rise. Therefore, a more successful path would be to eschew the current rhetoric and instead design immigrant integration programs that can attract and facilitate the mobility of high-skill immigrants, train low-skilled immigrants, and create a more receptive and welcoming atmosphere overall.

This work is clearly not happening at the federal level, and is often fraught with tension at the state level. It’s at the metro level — where regional resilience and economic vitality can be enhanced by collaboration — where it might be possible to make some progress.

BRR: You’re referring here to the findings in the report that there are now more high-skilled than low-skilled immigrants in the country.

Pastor: Yes, in 44 of 100 metro areas, college-educated immigrants (high-skilled) outnumber immigrants without a high school diploma (low-skilled) by at least 25%. These immigrants tend to work in high-tech, banking/finance, education, health care in the Northeast, Southeast, Great Lakes, and Florida. In contrast, 30 of the 100 metro areas have more low-skilled than high-skilled, mostly in California and the Southwest.

BRR: What do those migrations patterns tell you?

The study offers two important findings, one upfront, the other buried.

The quiet finding — one so obvious to the authors that they do not highlight it, but is perhaps less obvious to most of the public — is that America’s 100 largest metros have two-thirds of the U.S. population but 85 percent of the immigrant population. This implies that the future of immigrant America is the future of metro America — and vice versa. This is why we have been suggesting that it is important to understand the relative receptivity of regions and the relationship between immigrant integration at a metro level and regional resilience.

The other finding is, of course, that the skill mix of immigrants is not what the public thinks. There are more high-skilled  than low-skilled, and this goes against the vision that all immigrants must be day laborers. This implies that we should see immigrants as economic assets to our metro regions and not drains.

Moreover, in a recent study, A State Resilient: Immigrant Integration and California’s Future (pdf) we also show that in California, not having a high school degree may mean something different for immigrants. The reason: while not obtaining a degree by a U.S.-born worker is seen by employers as a negative signal not just of acquiring hard skills but of the ability to stick with a program, not completing high school in, say, Oaxaca, may simply reflect poverty and the need for young workers to start working earlier than in the U.S. As a result, the wage penalty for lacking a high school degree is lower for immigrants (holding all other factors constant), implying that productivity is also higher than the simple measure of education would suggest.

As for the differential pattern, the low-skill metros are attracting a larger share of Mexican immigrants, partly because of proximity, partly because of history, and partly because of pre-existing immigrant networks. For these areas, it is critical to invest in programs like English as a Second Language (ESL) to improve job skills and civic participation. It is also the case that these are the places where there may be more job competition with the native-born, complicating the political scenario.

BRR: The study also finds that in traditional/historical immigrant gateways (such as Detroit or New York City), there are more highly educated immigrants. In newer gateways, such as Houston, immigrants have less education. Why is that, and what are the ramifications for these newer-gateway metro regions?

Pastor: Each of the high-skill areas probably has a different story: New York is so expensive, the low-skill are leaving and it is also simply attractive to a well-educated set of professionals; in Detroit, we have a significant influx of Arabs who are more educated; in the Silicon Valley, we have high technology attracting top talent. The low-skill areas may have a more common story: there is labor demand and people move to meet it.

BRR: It seems that most immigrant debates and laws originate at the local government level or at most, at the state level. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states, for example, enacted a record number of bills and resolutions on immigration issues during the 2010 sessions. Yet this report points to regional patterns of immigration. How can regions work as a unit to integrate low-skill immigrants?

Pastor: It would be better if the federal government took leadership but the issue seems stymied, mostly because of political polarization. In fact, experts agree on the basics of reform: legalization of most of the undocumented who are here, tighter controls and verification of immigration status for employment, and some new method for insuring that we have labor flows — of both skilled and lesser-skilled — in the future (so we don’t have the sort of suppressed demand that produced the current undocumented population).

But with federal legislation bottled up, localities have been trying to deal with this. Generally, it’s been municipalities and states, with some going in the direction of New Haven — which made ID cards available for residents regardless of immigration status — or Georgia — which recently passed legislation perhaps more restrictive than what Arizona passed. There are very few metropolitan efforts, although we have seen some of the major metro mayors call for reform and Chicago, Denver, and San Jose have a number of very interesting metrowide efforts.

BRR: Why is it so hard for metro areas to work together on this topic?

Pastor: It’s hard for metros to get together on any topic, but this one, quite frankly, is fraught with issues of race and demographic change. The last census showed us that the Latino population grew by 43%, the Asian population by 43%, the African-American population by 11%, and the non-Hispanic white population by 1%. Yup, that’s right — 43% versus 1%. While much of that growth, particularly for Latinos, is of the native-born, there is a sense of loss and displacement and that influences public perceptions and then public policy. Our research suggests that racialized politics do matter — where political figures see interest in counterposing the interests of the native-born and immigrant populations, you can get friction. What is striking are efforts like those in San Jose, where regional leaders actively celebrate the need for and contributions of immigrants. Or in Utah, where civic, business, and immigrant leaders have signed a Utah Compact that has helped strike a more civil (and less racialized) tone in the discussion.

BRR: Do regions with more high-skilled immigrants need to worry about integrating them into the community, or are they doing just fine?

Pastor: For high-skill immigrants, a big issue is “credentialing” — people working under their skill level because their degrees or professional certifications are not recognized in the U.S. Our research suggests this is a particularly important problem for Latin American immigrants, a bit less for Asian immigrant, and not a big problem for European immigrants. But regions ignore this at their peril. These are folks who could contribute more and we are underutilizing their talents.

BRR: The fast-growth regions (with recently booming economies and housing markets) drew immigrants who literally helped to build these places (e.g., housing boom construction). What is happening to those areas now?

Pastor: These areas have very high unemployment and severe economic distress. One unappreciated fact about immigrants —  given the vision of them as sojourners, people don’t think about this — is that they exhibit very high rates of homeownership. And many bought in these new areas and now find themselves stranded with underwater mortgages, poor job prospects, and few social services. Digging out from this hole will take those regions some time.

To hear Singer discuss the report, visit the Brookings podcast.

Find skills ratios for the top 100 metro areas here.

For more of Pastor’s work, check out our publications page.

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