Brookings: Immigrant Workforce More Skilled Than Widely Assumed

Based on the amount of air time, blog space, and old-fashioned printer’s ink spent on illegal immigration, one might forgive the media-saturated public for thinking that most immigrants are here illegally, working in low-skill, low-wage jobs like fruit and vegetable picking, meat packing, landscaping, and the like. A new study by a leading Washington think tank, the Brookings Institution, paints a very different picture, showing just how far the popular stereotypes diverge from the truth about immigrants. (See The Geography of Immigrant Skills: Educational Profiles of Metropolitan Areas, by Matthew Hall, Audrey Singer, Gordon F. DeJong, and Deborah Roempke Graefe, Brookings Institution, Jun.2011.)

Yes, America still has large numbers of illegal immigrant workers, concentrated at the low end of the job-skill spectrum, but this is only part of the story. In fact, the dominance of this illegal-immigrant-worker narrative has distorted our national debate about immigration, Brookings argues, leading to legislative remedies that focus almost entirely on the costs of illegal immigration. As we have seen in recent months, fixating on the downside of immigration generally translates into punitive legislation, crowding out more balanced policies – policies that recognize the value of immigrant contributions, and manage immigration to maximize its benefits to our economy and society. As the study points out:

“Often lost in this discussion is the vital role of immigrants in the U.S. labor market. Immigrants are now one-in-seven U.S. residents and almost one-in-six workers. They are a significant presence in various sectors of the economy such as construction and hospitality on the low-skill end, and information technology and health care on the high-skill end. While border enforcement and illegal immigration are a focal point, longer-term U.S. global competitiveness rests on the ability of immigrants and their children to thrive economically and to contribute to the nation’s productivity.”

A balanced view of immigration is especially important now that immigrants make up such a large proportion of our population – 12.5 percent, which, according to the Brookings study, “is approaching levels not witnessed since the height of the industrial era.” According to Brookings, there is significant regional variability in the demographics of immigration, and we need a finer-grained picture of the distribution of immigrant workers, by skill level, across the country. To that end, the study examined educational attainment data for immigrants living in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, where over two-thirds of the U.S. population lives, and 85 percent of our immigrant population.

Brookings looked at U.S. Census Bureau statistics to determine which metropolitan areas tended to attract immigrant workers it categorized as “low-skilled” – those lacking a high school diploma – and “high-skilled” – those with a college degree or above. In some metro areas, like Atlanta, Indianapolis, and San Diego, the mix of immigrants was relatively balanced between low-skilled and high-skilled workers. In others, the balance of skills in the immigrant workforce tipped more sharply toward the low or high end of the scale. The mix depends on several factors, according to the study, including historical settlement patterns and the regional economic needs of a particular area. Understanding this variability is critical, Brookings argues, if we are to formulate appropriate legislative responses.

Among the Brookings study’s other key findings:

  • A higher proportion of working-age immigrants now in the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 1980 – more than the proportion lacking a high school diploma. According to the study, “In 1980, just 19 percent of immigrants aged 25 to 64 held a bachelor’s degree, and nearly 40 percent had not completed high school. By 2010, 30 percent of working-age immigrants had at least a college degree and 28 percent lacked a high school diploma.”
  • The number of high-skill, college-educated immigrants exceeds low-skill immigrants – those lacking a high-school diploma – by at least 25 percent in 44 of the top 100 largest metro areas; this includes places like Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. By contrast, low-skill workers are concentrated in the West, Southwest, and Great Plains.
  • Where immigrant populations are growing fastest, recent immigrants tend to be predominantly low-skilled, with “markedly lower educational attainment,” and less proficiency in English. By contrast, metro areas with slow-growing immigrant populations tend to attract more high-skill immigrant workers.
  • Low-skilled immigrants are employed at a higher rate than native-born workers, and have lower rates of household poverty, but tend to have lower earnings, as well. At the other end of the scale, a large proportion of high-skill immigrant workers are underemployed.

Now that Brookings has mapped the changing geography and demographics of immigration, one wonders whether some states will take a more nuanced approach to their homegrown immigration policies – letting economics play a bigger role than fear and xenophobia. Instead of competing to see which state can be most punitive toward immigrants, perhaps states will vie for a greater share of the immigrant talent pool. This would be a welcome change.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.