Perry’s Ambiguous Employment Record

By Steven A. Camarota on September 22, 2011

National Review Online, September 22, 2011

Texas governor Rick Perry has pointed to job growth in Texas during the current economic downturn as one of his main accomplishments. But in a new report for the Center for Immigration Studies, based on data collected monthly by the Census Bureau, we found that newly arrived immigrants (legal and illegal) have been the primary beneficiaries of this growth between 2007 and 2011, not native-born workers.

We found that of jobs created in Texas since 2007, 81 percent (225,000) were taken by newly arrived foreign workers (legal and illegal). The Census Bureau asks immigrants to say when they came to the United States, so it is easy to look at new arrivals who took jobs. Of newly arrived immigrants who took a job in Texas, the data show that 93 percent were not U.S. citizens. We estimate that about half of newly arrived immigrants who took jobs in Texas since 2007 were illegal immigrants. This means that about 40 percent of all the job growth in Texas between 2007 and 2011 went to newly arrived illegal immigrants and 40 percent went to newly arrived legal immigrants.

What is so surprising about these numbers is that so much of the job growth in the state went to immigrants even though the native-born accounted for 69 percent of the growth in Texas’s working-age population (16 to 65). Put another way, even though natives made up most of the growth in potential workers, most of the job growth went to immigrants. As a result, the employment rate for natives — the share of working-age natives holding a job in the state — declined in a manner very similar to that seen in the rest of the country. This is an indication that the situation for native-born workers in Texas is very similar to that of the nation as a whole, despite the state’s job growth.

The employment rate declined significantly, from 71.1 percent in 2007 to 66.6 percent in 2011. In my view, and that of many labor economists, the decline in the employment rate is more troubling than the rise in the unemployment rate. Unemployment counts only those who have looked for work in the last four weeks. It does not include those who have not looked recently, nor does it include those who have given up looking for work.

Now, I realize that there is always the post-national perspective held by some libertarians that says, “Who cares who gets the jobs?” But in my view this is not how most Americans think about the issue. For most of us, it matters a great deal that three-fourths of job growth in the state went to newly arrived non-citizens at the same time as the employment situation for the native-born deteriorated dramatically. It raises the very real question of whether we are being well served by allowing so many new immigrants into the county.

The United States continues to allow in more than 1 million permanent legal immigrants each year, plus several hundred thousand additional guest workers. And although my research and that of others shows that the number of new illegal immigrants has declined significantly, hundreds of thousands of new illegal immigrants still settle in the country each year, and the total illegal population stands at close to 11 million, according to the government.

As for Rick Perry, the above numbers matter because he has a track record on immigration, and as president he would play a huge role in setting legal immigration levels and enforcing immigration laws. Perry has repeatedly sung the praises of high levels of legal immigration; he opposes the border fence and signed into law a bill that gave in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants. He also opposes using E-Verify, an electronic system to confirm workers’ legal status. For these reasons, NumbersUSA has given him a D-minus on his immigration record and positions. In fairness to Perry, this grade places him in the middle of the Republican pack, and NumbersUSA also gives President Obama an F-minus.

Some may argue that it was the arrival of immigrants in Texas that stimulated what job growth there was for natives. But if immigration stimulates job growth for natives, the numbers in Texas should look very different. The unemployment rate and the employment rate of natives in Texas show a dramatic deterioration during the recession that is similar to the rest of the country. Among the native-born, for the second quarter of 2011, Texas ranked 22nd in terms of unemployment and 29th in terms of its employment rate for the native-born.

Outside of Texas, immigration does not seem to have helped either. Many of the top immigrant-receiving states are among the worst economies, such as California, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida. Unemployment in the top ten immigrant-receiving states in 2011 averaged 8.7 percent, compared to 7.2 percent on average in the ten states where the fewest immigrants arrived since 2007. These figures do not settle the longstanding debate over the economics of immigration; what they do show is that high immigration, in Texas and elsewhere, was not associated with positive labor-market outcomes for the native-born.

Some may still feel that less-educated immigrants who work at the bottom of the labor market are needed because we do not have enough of such workers among the native-born. It is true that 56.8 percent of newly arrived immigrants had no more than a high-school education. However, there are more than 3 million native-born workers in Texas who have no more than a high-school education. It’s also worth noting that four out of ten native-born working-age Americans have no education beyond high school. In Texas, between 2007 and 2011 the number of native-born Texans with a high-school diploma or less who were not working increased by 259,000, and their unemployment rate nearly doubled. It is very difficult to find evidence that less-educated workers were in short supply in the state.

It should also be remembered that many immigrants are more educated. In fact, 43.2 percent of newly arrived immigrants who took a job in Texas had at least some college. At the same time, the unemployment rate and employment rate for the native-born with at least some college both deteriorated significantly in Texas. It would be a mistake to assume that immigrants are only competing for jobs at the bottom end of the labor market.

There is a longstanding debate among economists about whether immigration helps or harms the labor-market prospects of the native-born. Some research shows that it lowers employment rates and reduces wages, while other research shows that it does not. But that research is from before the Great Recession. At the current time, it is very difficult to argue that the country is short of workers. In general, what seems to be happening in Texas, and the nation, is that immigrant employment gains are coming at the expense of the native-born. We need to look hard at our immigration system and see if it makes sense to keep the level of legal immigration so high. We also need to decide if we want to actually enforce our immigration laws.

Few politicians seem willing to have this debate. Yet polls repeatedly show most Americans think the level of immigration is too high. As for Republican presidential hopefuls, the issue is sitting there, waiting for them to use it to distinguish themselves from other candidates.