- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

The topic of poverty in the United States has become intertwined with one of the most hotly debated issues on Capitol Hill and across the nation — immigration.

No longer does the word “immigrants” conjure up images of boats docking at Ellis Island full of Europeans looking for a bright future. They have been replaced by visions of men and women risking their lives to illegally cross the nation’s southern border to begin a new life under the radar of authorities and often in the most impoverished situations.

“Any discussion of poverty in the United States would have to deal with immigration … it doesn’t make sense to import poverty,” which is what is happening now, said Steven A. Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that advocates stricter immigration limits and enforcement.

George Borjas, professor of economics and social policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, agrees that immigration and poverty are linked, and he cites the same reasons as CIS.

“They are linked because an increasing number of poor in this country are foreign-born, and a disproportionately large number of immigrants are high school dropouts,” Mr. Borjas said.

The Harvard scholar, whose family emigrated to this country from Cuba when he was a child, said a significant element in this equation is that at least one-third of immigrants are from Mexico.

“Mexicans tend to be at a very low level of schooling,” Mr. Borjas said. “A very large proportion have less than eight years of education, and many have only three or four years. Quite a few actually have zero.”

So “immigration can have a large impact on the labor market,” he said, adding: “The wages of high school dropouts have fallen between 5 [percent] to 8 percent in the past 20 years.”

A recent report released by the Pew Hispanic Research Center showed that Hispanics, who constitute more than half of immigrants entering the U.S. today, accounted for a 68 percent share in the growth of the nation’s “poverty population” between 1990 and 2000.

In the first four years of the 21st century, the combination of immigration and births to immigrants accounted for more than 80 percent of the U.S. population growth, according to CIS data.

Immigrant poverty

On the downside, the poverty rate for immigrants and their U.S.-born children under age 18 is two-thirds higher than that of native-born Americans and their children — 18.5 percent vs. 11.3 percent — according to CIS.

A key reason for the income disparity, CIS and others say, is that the proportion of immigrants without a high school diploma is 30 percent, or more than 3.5 times the rate for native-born Americans.

Since 1990, immigration has increased the number of high school dropouts in the labor market by 21 percent, while boosting the supply of all other workers by 5 percent, according to CIS.

A study released in June by the Employee Benefits Research Institute found that, between 1998 and 2003, the foreign-born accounted for 86 percent of the growth in the uninsured population.

Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning and demography at the University of Southern California, said he worries about the influx of unskilled and uneducated immigrant workers because of retiring baby boomers — a population recognized both for their high-level education and high-tech skills.

As for immigrants, Mr. Myers observed: “There is a bunch at the very bottom [in terms of income]. There are some at the top, and the middle is pretty weak.

“If immigrants can’t replace the retiring baby boomers, who are such a vital component of the work force, who will? It doesn’t look good,” he said.

Not everyone, however, agrees that immigration is linked to poverty.

Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy and research for the National Council of LaRaza, an advocacy group for Hispanics, said: “Some immigrants may live in poverty, and many work in low-paying jobs. But immigration does not cause poverty.”

Factors Ms. Waslin sees as contributing to the poverty of immigrants include the “vulnerability” of those who are not documented; the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which she said, “made a lot of lawful immigrants ineligible for safety-net services”; and the “necessity of [some immigrants] working three or four jobs to support their family, which makes it hard for them to get to class to learn English.”

Knowledge of English could help them advance, she said.

Benjamin Johnson, director of the Immigration Policy Center, part of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said: “Immigrants aren’t immune to poverty, but they don’t cause it. Neither do the thousands of military families who live below the poverty level.”

Suggestions that immigrants cause poverty are “inflammatory,” he said.

By the numbers

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the nation’s foreign-born population numbered 33.5 million in 2003, nearly 12 percent of the total population. That was a million more immigrants than in 2002 and 8.1 million more than in 1999.

The bureau reported that 53 percent of immigrants living in this country in March 2003 were from Latin America. It also found that those from Central America - defined as a “subset of Latin America that includes Mexico” - accounted for more than a third of all the foreign-born in the United States.

The Census Bureau’s findings are based on a monthly poll of 70,000 households, known as the Current Population Survey. CIS also uses those data, as well as information from another national poll known as the American Community Survey.

Mr. Camarota of CIS estimates that 10 million or more of all foreign-born persons living in the United States are undocumented.

The U.S. Census Bureau does not ask U.S. households if their occupants are legal, but does ask if they are naturalized citizens.

The bureau has found that the poverty rate of naturalized citizens (9.8 percent) is lower than that for native-borns.

“But for foreign-born who are not U.S. citizens, the poverty rate is 21.6 percent, which shows citizenship really does make a big difference,” said census spokesman Robert Bernstein.

Other census data shows that in 2004, the median income for naturalized citizens was nearly $1,000 higher than for natives and was more than $11,000 higher than for immigrants who were not citizens.

But Mr. Borjas questions the usefulness of such data, pointing out that immigrants who are naturalized citizens are “a very select sample.”

Blacks and welfare reform

Immigration hasn’t been the only factor discussed as contributing to the increase in Hispanics living below the poverty level.

Robert J. Samuelson, a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post, who has written some commentaries linking immigration and poverty, has suggested welfare reform was a factor in the drop in poverty among U.S. blacks between 1993 (when the rate was 33.1 percent) and 2004, when it was 24.7.

Welfare-reform legislation restricted program benefits and imposed tougher work requirements. Mr. Samuelson cited a Brookings Institution study that showed the share of never-married working mothers rose from 46 percent in 1994 to 66 percent in 2002.

The Brookings report by senior fellow Ron Haskins also found that the number of families receiving traditional welfare fell from 5 million in 1994 to 2 million in 2003. Mr. Haskins said he obtained the data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“There has been an enormous increase in females with families in the workplace. These women are disproportionately black, never-married, and low-income. These are the types of moms who used to be on welfare. But they’ve gotten jobs in droves,” he said, adding: “This is a trend: one of the most remarkable trends in the history of labor force statistics.”

John C. White, a spokesman for the NAACP, said heart-wrenching images from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina dramatized the poverty that still plagues many blacks. He declined to comment on whether the incomes of blacks have benefited from welfare reform.

“We don’t have any data to confirm that,” he said.

But Mr. Borjas says he believes they “probably have.”

Mr. Haskins of Brookings said he recognizes liberals will contend that the sharp rise in employment among single mothers is the result of a strong economy. “But the welfare rolls have declined by 60 percent, and that never happened before. And the poverty rate among black children is at its lowest level ever.”

As Investor’s Business Daily said in a recent editorial: “The black-white divide in poverty is narrowing, and poverty can no longer so easily be blamed on [racial] discrimination. But poverty as a whole continues to rise in spite of a prolonged economic expansion.”

The reason, the editorial says, is something few care to talk about: Immigration.

It quotes Mr. Samuelson’s observation in The Washington Post: “We have uncontrolled entry of poor, unskilled workers across our southern border. Although many succeed, many don’t, and many poor Latino immigrants have children, who are also poor.”

Mr. Samuelson notes that while the share of blacks in poverty ?? though still far too high ?? is dropping, the percentage of poor Hispanics is rising. In 2004, he wrote, 25 percent of the total American poverty population was Hispanic, up from 12 percent in 1980.

During the same time, he said, the poverty rate of non-Hispanic whites remained fairly low and stable: between 8 percent and 9 percent.

“Over this period, Hispanics represented almost three-quarters of the increase in the poverty population,” Mr. Samuelson said.

In an earlier column, he raised the specter of a possible “collision” between retiring baby boomers expecting Social Security and Medicare and poor, young immigrants and their families “who may be in need of their own government benefits.”

Such a clash would be ironic, Mr. Samuelson said, “since immigration should make it easier to pay” for government entitlements because it “increases the number of workers and taxpayers.”

But he suggests the jury is still out.

Illegal vs. legal

The recent Pew Hispanic Center study found that illegal immigration into the United States regularly outstrips legal, permanent immigration and showed a dramatic rise from 2003 to 2004.

Immigration follows economic trends, according to the study, and researchers cited the availability of jobs in the U.S. as a factor luring immigrants here. Particular bad economic times in other countries cause increased migration from those areas.

But a CIS report, released in November 2003, “Immigration in a Time of Recession,” held that immigration levels no longer correlate with economic conditions in the U.S.

“Even though the economy in the United States deteriorated severely” between 2000 and 2003 and “unemployment rates among immigrants rose from 4.9 percent to 7.4 percent during that period, the people [from abroad] still kept coming,” Mr. Camarota said.

Mr. Johnson of the American Immigration Lawyers Association said 60 percent of Hispanics living in the United States today were born in a foreign country. “But the other 40 percent of the Hispanic population is not foreign-born,” a fact that tends to be overlooked in some assessments, he said.

The average fertility rate of foreign-born women is higher than native women, and that of Hispanics is especially high, according to census data. In June 2002, there were 8.9 million foreign-born women of child-bearing age in the United States, of which 637,000 had given birth in the previous year, said spokesman Robert Bernstein.

Of all foreign-born women of child-bearing age, according to the census, nearly two-thirds have had children, while a third has remained childless. But among Hispanics, the proportion that have had children is nearly three-quarters.

In contrast, about 45 percent of native-born women have remained childless, while 55 percent have had offspring, the data show.

The Pew Hispanic Center’s research found that both nationally and in states especially popular with Hispanic immigrants, including six Southern states that recently have become favorite destinations, the average number of people in Hispanic households (3.8) “was significantly larger than in either white (2.4) or black (2.7) households.”

What’s more, Mr. Camarota said, both legal and illegal immigrants contribute significantly to poverty in this country.

In a 2004 report, CIS found that 5.9 million immigrants were in poverty. Of that total, 2.1 million were illegals, Mr. Camarota said.

But he further noted the number of legal immigrants who qualified as poor was nearly double the total of poor illegals, or 3.8 million.

“Our immigration policy is certainly not based on the selection of the best and brightest,” Mr. Camarota said, adding:

“Having a family member living in this country, who can sponsor an immigrant, is the primary factor in terms of who enters the country legally.”

Jobs, not race

Stuart Anderson, formerly of the pro-immigration, libertarian Cato Institute, says that, too often, “snapshots” of immigrants’ low financial status are taken shortly after their arrival in this country. But he says various studies have indicated their finances improve over time, although it may take a decade or more.

In fact, Mr. Anderson, now with the National Foundation for American Policy, said, “Earning growth for immigrants is higher than for natives.”

But even with income growth, he acknowledges immigrants may still wind up classified beneath the official poverty line, or about $19,300 for a family of four.

“You have people coming here from relatively poor countries. They may increase their wealth four or five times, but they may still statistically show up below the poverty line,” Mr. Anderson said.

David Diaz, associate professor of Chicano studies at California State University at Northridge, says some corporations “factor in impoverishment” of immigrant workers into their profitability schedules.

“Here in California, for example, many firms refuse to pay health care and other benefits, and they allow the state to pay them” at taxpayers’ expense, Mr. Diaz said.

Citing notoriously low-wage employment sectors, such as agriculture and the motel industry, he said: “As long as these sectors continue to seek low-wage labor, it pretty much ensures impoverishment in the labor force.”

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