New immigrants may swamp the US labor force

News India Times file photo.

NEW YORK – President Trump is keen to radically reform the immigration system, to give priority to young, highly skilled immigrants and those with money bags to indulge in startups. He wants to reduce the high volume flow from family reunification where lack of education or skill sets are of no consequence, and immigrants coming under that quota are more likely to rely upon public benefits.

New data on recent immigrants by the Pew Research Center this week show the pros and cons for the US economy, and society. The evolving set of immigrants, coupled with tumultuous changes in immigration law – if enacted, could bring about drastic changes in economy and labor force in the near future.

Recently arrived US immigrants are a growing part of the nation’s foreign-born population, which reached a record 44.4 million in 2017. Overall, their profile differs from immigrants who have been in the country longer, say new data from Pew.

Immigrants today account for 13.6% of the US population, nearly triple the share (4.7%) in 1970. However, today’s immigrant share remains below the record 14.8% share in 1890, when 9.2 million immigrants lived in the US. From 1990 to 2007, the unauthorized immigrant population tripled in size – from 3.5 million to a record high of 12.2 million.

By region of birth, immigrants from South and East Asia combined accounted for 27% of all immigrants, close to the share of immigrants from Mexico (25%). Other regions make up smaller shares: Europe/Canada (13%), the Caribbean (10%), Central America (8%), South America (7%), the Middle East (4%) and sub-Saharan Africa (4%).

More than 1 million immigrants arrive in the US each year. In 2017, the top country of origin for new immigrants coming into the U.S. was India, with 126,000 people, followed by Mexico (124,000), China (121,000) and Cuba (41,000).

About 7.6 million immigrants have lived in the country for five years or less. They make up 17% of the foreign-born population, a share that has returned to 2010 levels after a slight dip. Recently arrived immigrants have markedly different education, income and other characteristics from those who have been in the U.S. for more than a decade, say the new data.

Proposed changes to U.S. immigration laws could favor highly skilled immigrants, which could further change the demographics of the nation’s foreign-born population, Pew analyzed. U.S. adults support encouraging highly skilled people to immigrate and work in the U.S., according to a 2018 survey from Pew Research Center.

Short-term residents have more education than long-term residents, and the gap between these immigrant groups has widened. Almost half (47%) of immigrants ages 25 and older who arrived in the U.S. during the previous five years have a bachelor’s degree or more as of 2017, compared with just 28% of those who have lived in the country for more than 10 years.

The share among newer arrivals has grown since 2010, when 36% had a college degree, compared with 25% of longer-tenured immigrants. Overall, the education levels of U.S. immigrants have increased, due in part to growing numbers of international students and highly skilled workers. By contrast, 32% of the U.S.-born population has a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Look at it this way: if the current trend continues, and new laws increase the flow of highly educated young foreigners, it could have a crippling effect for native-born Americans in the workplace. They would be at risk of losing jobs to young foreigners.

The younger immigrants if they were to quickly become permanent residents would likely settle for lower wages, and the system in place now for higher salaries or at par in the industry for H-1B visa workers would get thrown out the window. Of course, it would also be greatly beneficial for corporates.

Along with this, the US society also faces the challenges of absorbing young foreigners to its way of life. New immigrants, while they are educated and affluent, may come from societies around the world, where laws and way of life itself was vastly different. It would be a sea change to get a Green Card in hand and try navigate through the American way of life within months of arrival.

At present, the system of absorbing foreigners over a period of time, who through a process of studying in the country, then working, and finally applying to be permanent residents has a unique value system of slowly allowing the immigrant to integrate himself into society, and becoming more efficient and productive citizens.

Another factor is that recently arrived immigrants have higher unemployment rates than longer-term immigrants. Immigrants who arrived in the past five years have a 7.1% unemployment rate, compared with a 3.9% unemployment rate for immigrants who have lived in the country for more than 10 years, according to Pew Research Center analysis of American Community Survey. Both groups have seen declines in unemployment since 2010, when their rates were 12.8% and 9.7%, respectively. More-recent arrivals have for decades had higher unemployment rates than longer-term residents, despite having more education. The opposite is true for the U.S. population overall: Those with more education have lower unemployment rates.

Here is where Trump can easily make the argument that this higher unemployment rate among new immigrants is because of family reunification and other avenues like diversity visas. This rate will dramatically fall and probably be higher than the long term residents’ rate if only highly educated foreigners are allowed to emigrate.

Another key finding by Pew is that the personal earnings of recently arrived U.S. immigrants have increased, but trail those of longer-term immigrants.

Those who arrived in the past five years had median annual personal earnings of $24,000 in 2017, compared with $32,000 among those who have lived in the country more than 10 years.

For decades, more-recent arrivals have lagged longer-term residents in personal earnings despite having higher levels of education. For the U.S. population, by contrast, those with a college education have higher earnings. Since the Great Recession, the personal earnings of newer arrivals have increased while those of longer-tenured residents have remained flat.

English proficiency among recently arrived immigrants is on the rise. Among those who arrived in the U.S. in the past five years, 45% said in 2017 that they either speak only English at home or speak English very well, up from 38% in 2010. Due to this increase, recent arrivals are closing the gap with longer-term immigrants, who have seen little change in their English proficiency. About half of immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years said in 2017 that they either speak only English at home or speak English very well, a share little changed from 2010.

US demographics will look a lot different in the decades to come. Asians are projected to become the largest immigrant group in the U.S. by 2055, surpassing Hispanics. Pew Research Center estimates indicate that in 2065, Asians will make up some 38% of all immigrants; Hispanics, 31%; whites, 20%; and blacks, 9%.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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