WASHINGTON — The labor market is healing faster for immigrants than for U.S.-born workers as the growing economy favors those at the low and high ends of the pay scale.
Joblessness among those born outside the United States averaged 8.1 percent in 2012, down from 9.7 percent three years earlier, according to Labor Department data released to Bloomberg. In the same period, the rate among those born in the country fell to 8.1 percent from 9.2 percent.
Working immigrants, who are more likely than native-born Americans to either lack a high-school diploma or to hold an advanced degree, have gained from a decades-long divergence in the labor market that has swelled demand for jobs paying above- and below-average wages. Amid this dynamic, the battle over comprehensive changes in immigration law is coming to the forefront in Congress.
Foreign-born workers “increase efficiency in the economy, and by increasing efficiency, they eliminate bottlenecks,” said Pia Orrenius, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas who has studied immigration. Their availability “lowers overall unemployment and increases economic growth.”
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From 2009 through 2012, the number of immigrants employed in the United States rose 6.5 percent to 23 million, compared with a 1 percent gain to 119.5 million for those born in the United States, Labor Department data show.
A strengthening economy, along with better-than-forecast corporate earnings and improving global growth, sent U.S. stocks higher. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has been up for seven consecutive weeks, leaving it near its highest level since October 2007.
The data from the U.S. Labor Department also showed immigrants experienced job growth in 13 of 14 occupational categories tracked, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. U.S-born workers saw growth in nine.
Underlying those figures, immigrants’ gains during the past three years were concentrated in low- and high-paying categories that range from health care to management. Only in manufacturing did those born in the U.S. see bigger gains than their foreign counterparts.
The increases mirror a pattern that has developed in the labor market independent of birth status: Middle-income workers are losing out as low-wage jobs, such as landscaping and food preparation, and high-wage positions, such as dentistry and engineering, show outsized increases. Middle-wage jobs include work in office administration and factory production.
Economists including Daron Acemoglu and David Autor, both at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have attributed this job polarization to the loss of positions that require repetitive tasks and can be replaced by technology.
The skills immigrants bring to the country help them fit into the available work opportunities. About 24 percent of employed foreigners over the age of 25 did not have a high-school diploma in 2012, compared with 4.6 percent of American-born workers, according to the Labor Department. At the other extreme, 14.1 percent of working immigrants held an advanced degree, higher than the 13.5 percent of U.S.-born employees.
“Immigrants basically go to industries that are growing and help them grow faster,” said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington.