An Immigration Policy Puzzle: Peruvians vs. Dominicans, Why So Different?

By David North on October 26, 2010

While scrolling through the most recent Pew Hispanic Center data, dealing with country-of-origin profiles of the various Hispanic communities in the United States, I encountered a real puzzle:

Why are the Peruvians in the U.S., (median household income: $51,734) so much more successful than the Dominicans (median household income: $35,644)? Of the 10 Hispanic communities in the U.S. listed by Pew, the Peruvians were at the top of this and several other scales, and the Dominicans were at the bottom.

Is this remarkable difference due to immigration policies of ours, or is it something else?
Can we discern from what we are doing with the Peruvians something that might be useful vis-a-vis other migrant populations?

These are the median Hispanic household income data cited by Pew:

Place of Origin

Household Income
1 Peru $51,734
2 Columbia $49,901
3 Ecuador $49,392
4 El Salvador $43,791
5 Cuba $43,587
6 Guatemala $41,754
7 Puerto Rico $40,736
7 Mexico $40,736
9 Honduras $36,662
10 Dominican Rep. $35,644

The first three countries on the list, all from South America, have an average median household income in this chart of $50,342. The others, all from the Caribbean or Central America, have a comparable figure of $40,416 – a striking difference of almost $10,000 a year.

Clearly being able to walk into the U.S., legally or illegally, doesn't help the Mexican median, nor does growing up under the U.S. flag seem to help the Puerto Ricans.

What puzzles me from an immigration policy perspective is that all but one of the entities from four through nine on the list have experienced legal or de facto immigration policy breaks in the U.S., which were not conferred on the first three nations, or on the last one.

People from two of the three Central American nations (but not Guatemala) have had access to Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a mini-amnesty program; for years Cubans without papers could, in fact, enter the U.S. following a boat trip; Puerto Ricans are citizens at birth, and Mexicans have relatively easy illegal access to the U.S.

None of these arrangements benefitted either the Dominicans or the Peruvians, yet they wind up at the two ends of the income spectrum. Further, the per capita GDP for the two nations, according to the CIA Factbook, is about the same, $8,500 for Peru and $8,300 for DR.

What's going on?

The Pew Fact Sheets on the two populations show that their abilities with English are about the same, with between 50 and 55 percent of both populations speaking English proficiently. (The study population consists of people either born in the listed place, or tracing their ancestry to it.)

There are differences, however. The Peruvians are more likely to be foreign-born (69.3 percent) than the Dominicans (57.3 percent), have a lot more education (29.8 percent of those 25 and older have a college degree, while the percentage for the Dominicans is 16 percent) and are older. The median age of the Peruvians is 35 as opposed to 29 for the Dominicans.

My sense is that the main migration-related differences are distance from the homeland to the U.S. and the cost of a trip from one to the other. A quick visit to Orbitz showed a round-trip from JFK to the DR would cost $183 but a round trip, JFK-Lima, would be more than four times as expensive, $869.

This factor would tend to explain at least a large part of the age/education/income differences between these two populations.

Now if we could just get JetBlue (it flies to and from the DR) to raise its fares substantially, maybe the Dominicans in America could be more like the Peruvians in America.

To close on a large, and cold-hearted, question: does increasing the cost of immigration – both legal and illegal – produce a smaller but more able, more affluent group of migrants?

Maybe we are headed in that direction.