Of all the country’s major racial and ethnic groups, only Hispanics, as of late last year, had returned to their unemployment levels before the recession.
By Noam Scheiber
The New York Times, March 8, 2015, WASHINGTON — With the economy adding nearly 300,000 jobs in February, it’s clear that the labor market is on a roll. And, perhaps surprisingly, there is no group for whom that is truer than Hispanics.
Employment among Hispanics has increased 5 percent over the last 12 months, according to the Labor Department, compared with 3.8 percent for blacks and 1.4 percent for whites. (The last figure partly reflects the rising number of retirements among the aging white population.)
Of all the country’s major racial and ethnic groups, only Hispanics, as of late last year, had returned to their unemployment levels before the recession, according to the recent Economic Report of the President.
Given that roughly half of Hispanic workers are foreign born, that development might seem destined to aggravate nativist tensions in Congress, where Republicans have tried to roll back the president’s executive action on undocumented immigrants.
But, on closer inspection, the trends driving the improving job market for Hispanics are trends most skeptics of immigration would cheer.
The first is a rebound in the construction industry, which is good news for the American economy as a whole, because construction jobs pay above-average wages to low-skill workers.
Just before the recession, about 14 percent of Hispanics, or nearly three million people, were employed in construction. That group then lost about 700,000 jobs, of which only a trickle had returned through 2013.
But 2014 was a bonanza compared with recent years. The construction industry as a whole gained over half a million jobs, about 20 percent of all the jobs created in the United States economy. Of those, 315,000 went to Hispanics. Not surprisingly, the new construction jobs are concentrated in four states — California, Florida, Illinois and Texas — where the Latino population is among the highest in the country.
“Construction was pretty down two, three years ago, but last year was a lot better,” said Oscar Mondragon, the director of the Malibu Community Labor Exchange, which connects laborers with employers throughout the Los Angeles area. “People are feeling better. It’s a more positive mood.”
More broadly, the surge in Hispanic employment reflects an increasingly robust recovery. Economists generally say that the job prospects of lower-skill workers are more sensitive to the economy’s tidal movements than those with better skills, and Hispanics, as a group, tend to be less educated than blacks and whites.
In 2012, according to the Pew Research Center, 49 percent of foreign-born Hispanics age 25 and older, and 19.6 percent of Hispanics in that age group who were born in the United States, lacked a high school diploma. The corresponding number for blacks was 16.6 percent, and 8.5 percent for whites. If Hispanic employment is surging, it’s a decent indication that the recovery has taken hold.
The second reason behind lower Hispanic unemployment is a sharp decline in illegal immigration in recent years, which has reduced the number of workers who might otherwise have turned up in government unemployment statistics.
At the recent peak in the mid-2000s, federal agents were apprehending just over one million undocumented migrants a year along the southern border. That number fell by roughly half during the recession, then dribbled to 340,000 in 2011. The collapse in apprehensions of immigrants from Mexico, by far the largest source of undocumented labor, was even sharper.
The reason for the drop was twofold, said Madeline Zavodny, an economist at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. First, economic conditions in Mexico were improving even as growth in the United States remained sluggish, reducing a crucial incentive to emigrate.
On top of that was a development that should warm the hearts of Tea Party supporters: enforcement. Thanks to the rapid militarization of the border — the number of border patrol agents has increased by two-thirds since 2006 — crossing into the United States is now a far more daunting proposition than before the recession.
“It’s more costly in terms of what you have to pay a coyote, how remote you have to go,” Ms. Zavodny said.
The more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws extends far beyond the border. More than half a million employers now use E-Verify, an Internet-based government service that determines in seconds whether a recent hire is eligible for work in this country. That has effectively reduced the universe of jobs available to undocumented immigrants.
“When a company makes it clear they’re using E-Verify, the whole work force knows,” said Pia Orrenius, an economist who studies immigration at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “That news spreads like you would not believe.”
Meanwhile, the Secure Communities program that began in 2008 made it easier for the Homeland Security Department to identify and remove undocumented workers, whose fingerprints it received whenever local authorities took an immigrant into custody. The federal government deported hundreds of thousands of people through the program before the Obama administration halted it in late 2014.
Taken together, the story of the last 10 years looks something like the following: A construction boom from 2004 to 2007 led to a corresponding boom in Hispanic employment, with immigrants gaining 1.6 million jobs and native-born Hispanics gaining 800,000, according to Pew. Unemployment then spiked for both groups during the recession, and contributed to a drop in illegal immigration. And because immigration has never really recovered, the recent rebound in construction is primarily benefiting American-born workers.
Sooner or later, of course, the recovery will begin attracting more workers from Latin America, notwithstanding the beefed-up enforcement. Although illegal immigration is still far below its peak, it has begun to tick up again. Excluding unaccompanied minors, apprehensions at the southern border are up 25 percent since they bottomed out in 2011.
But even this is not necessarily a bad thing for American workers, at least not in the long run. Recent research suggests that, over time, an influx of low-skill immigrants allows many native-born workers to perform more sophisticated tasks for better pay. “More construction workers generates the need for more supervisors, more managers to coordinate them, more contractors to give them work,” said Giovanni Peri, an economics professor at the University of California, Davis.
Showdowns between Congress and the president may be zero-sum, in which one side wins only at the other’s expense. But immigration, it turns out, is not.