Immigrant Population Booming

Dan Wright, DNRonline.com, August 26, 2006

Harrisonburg—A growing Hispanic population, which is occurring in rural areas across America, brings accompanying social changes like depressed wages and hidden unemployment, experts say.

Over the past 20 years, the nation’s Hispanic population has exploded, and Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are now catching up with the country as a whole, said Steve Camarota, director of research with the Center for Immigration Studies.

While the combined city and county population rose 3.3 percent from 2000 to 2005, the Hispanic population increased 38.5 percent, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Meanwhile, research from Harvard University shows a correlation between increased immigration and a reduction in wages.

About half of the nation’s Hispanic immigrant population did not enter the country legally; however, the impact on wages occurs regardless of the immigrants’ legal status, Camarota explained.

“There is no reason to believe it’s any different in [Harrisonburg and Rockingham County],” Camarota said. “It’s extremely likely that at least half are here illegally.”

The Numbers

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey, the Hispanic population in Rockingham County is 3,016, up 35.8 percent from the 2,221 in the Census survey of 2000.

Because Harrisonburg’s population is under 65,000, it was not included in the community survey; however, the bureau’s population estimates put the city’s Hispanic population at about 2,000, a 43 percent increase from the 1,400 five years ago.

Meanwhile, the county’s total population increased 5.1 percent to 71,251 and the city was up a fraction—0.25 percent—to 40,438.

As the immigrant population increases, the social distance between immigrants and natives will be greater, Camarota said.

Of the Hispanic immigrants, most are from Mexico and Central America, most have a low education level and most are poor, he said.

“So a 35 percent increase in new arrivals will not equal a 35 percent increase in the tax base,” Camarota said.

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The Impact

An increase in low-income, low-education immigrants raises a number of issues, including deterioration of wages and job displacement, demographic experts say.

When immigration increases the supply of workers, the earnings of native-born workers in similar skill categories will fall, according to a 2004 study by George Borjas, professor of economics and social policy at Harvard University.

“The negative effect will occur regardless of whether the immigrant workers are legal or illegal, temporary or permanent,” Borjas said. “Any sizable increase in the number of immigrants will inevitably lower wages for some American workers.”

Between 1980 and 2000, immigration reduced the average annual earnings of native-born men by 4 percent, or about $1,700, the study said.

The reduction in wages was larger, about 7.4 percent, for native-born workers without a high school degree, the poorest 10 percent of the work force, Borjas explained.

“Reducing the supply of labor by strict immigration enforcement and reduced legal immigration would increase the earnings of native workers,” Borjas said.

Another effect of immigrant workers is job displacement, Camarota said.

In Virginia, 73 percent of native-born people between the ages of 18 and 64 who had not gone beyond high school held a job in 2000. Five years later, that number had dropped to 66 percent.

The decline is not due to people going back to school or early retirement, Camarota said. And they don’t show up in unemployment statistics, he added, which only reflect people actively looking for work—these are people who have stopped looking for work.

“The big declines are teenagers and people in their 20s,” Camarota said. “That’s what makes it so disconcerting.”

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