Immigrants in the Economy, Schools and Higher Education

By David Simcox on December 1, 1996

pp. 15-17 in Immigration Review no. 27, Fall/Winter, 1996-97

A review of:

The Mixed Economic Progress of Immigrants
by Robert F. Schoeni, Kevin F. McCarthy and Georges Vernez
(Santa Monica, CA: Rand Center for Research on Immigration Policy, 1996)

How Immigrants Fare in U.S. Education
by Georges Vernez and Allan Abrahamse
(Santa Monica, CA: Rand Center for Research on Immigration Policy, 1996)

Immigration and Higher Education: Institutional Responses to Changing Demographics
by Maryann Jacobi Gray, Elizabeth Rolph and Elan Melamid
(Santa Monica, CA: Rand Center for Research on Immigration Policy, 1996)

We owe thanks to Rand's Center for Research on Immigration Policy for these three studies. They are clear, trenchant, and mercifully sparse in social science jargon. They define genuine immigration policy questions, and they avoid the panglossian lyricism of the works of some pro-immigrant think tanks, including some of Rand's own work on Mexican immigration to California more than a decade ago.

Unequal Performance of the Foreign Born in the Labor Markets and Education

The very title of Rand's sober study of The Mixed Economic Progress of Immigrants typifies the turn of many immigration scholars in the past decade away from a faith in the unvarying economic progress of immigrants, regardless of the settlers' cultural and educational handicaps. The study confirms once again that European and some Asian immigrant groups (particularly Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese), aided by years of schooling comparable to or better than natives, are doing well indeed in the U.S. economic race.

Immigrants from Canada and Europe adjust best: they start out with earnings only slightly lower than those of natives, and within five to ten years overtake them. While immigrants from Japan, Korea and China start our further behind natives in earnings, within seven to 12 years they catch up. But not all Asian groups are winners. Philippine immigrants for example, show slower wage growth over their lifetimes.

According to the study, which echoes the work of Harvard economist George Borjas, it is immigrants from Mexico and Central America that have lagged most seriously. They receive substantially lower wages than natives when they enter the work force and the rate of their wage growth thereafter is slow. Mexicans, and to some extent Central Americans, perform poorly in the economy, even after controlling for years of education, leading the researchers to conclude that the quality and assimilating effect of education are major factors, with distinct competitive advantages going to those immigrants with the greatest amount of U.S. education.

Rand's study also found that immigrants from the Middle East and the rest of Asia on one hand, and from Africa, the Caribbean, South America and Oceania on the other, when assessed as two discrete groups, generally caught up with natives in their earnings within ten years. The researchers, however, cautioned about the validity of observations on such diverse populations lumped artificially into two groups.

Immigration Reverses California's Skills Balance

Rand's researchers make a special contribution by examining how immigrant groups are faring in the State of California, the residence of choice of nearly a third of all newcomers. The high concentration there of Mexican and Central American immigrants presents a more unbalanced and troubling picture.

More than three decades of heavy immigration from Mexico and Central America have left California with a disproportionate share of the nation's poorly educated workers. By 1990, 85 percent of all male workers in the state with fewer than nine years of education were immigrants. The effect was a complete turn-about in the distribution of skills in the state over three decades. In 1970, workers in the United States as a whole were 50 percent more likely than those in California to be among the least skilled. By 1990 there was a total reversal: workers in California are 50 percent more likely to be low-skilled than those in the United States at large. California's changing skills profile has been offset somewhat by the settlement there of a sizable share of highly-skilled immigrants.

Because of the declining human capital of a major sector of the immigrant flow, in the United States, but most markedly in California, earnings of immigrants relative to natives have declined substantially. In California, immigrants now dominate low-skill employment. As the gap between low- and high-skill wages has grown in the last 20 years — a gap aggravated by low-skill immigration — a substantial share of California's immigrant labor force is earning less than native- born workers. Low-skill immigrants also are finding it more difficult to be assimilated into California's labor markets because of job competition from other immigrants.

This outcome points to a troubling stratification among wage earners in California — and ultimately other immigrant-impacted regions — by such determinants as language, nationality, recency of arrival or whether schooled in the United States or abroad, as well as by race and class.

The Mixed Economic Progress of Immigrants concludes that immigrants in general are not assimilating any faster. They have not shortened the time it takes them to catch-up with the wages of natives. For most Asian and European immigrants, who close their wage gap with natives quickly, this is no problem. For Mexicans and Central Americans it means that the persistent wage gap they have experienced historically will not close in the foreseeable future.

Data biases in the study may make even this grim picture unduly bright. Rand's study is based on immigrant men only, so the typically lower wages of women immigrants stemming from discrimination, weaker education and experience, and family obligations do not have their customary weight in these findings.

While Rand's study of economic progress does not go into why the assimilation machinery of U.S. society seems to be bogging down, the findings of its second study, How Immigrants Fare in U.S. Education, point up the educational travails that account, in part, for the poor labor market performance of Hispanics in the first study.

How Immigrants Fare finds that those newcomers who get in and remain in the U.S. public school system have equaled or exceeded the educational attainment of native youth. Those immigrants are more likely than natives to take college preparatory courses, just as likely or more likely to graduate from high school within four years from their sophomore year, and more likely than their native counterparts to attend college and remain there continuously for four years. And they are likely to have parents with higher expectations of college attendance for their children than do native-born Americans.

Hispanics: Dropping Out of School or Not Dropping In?

As in the labor market competition, Asian and white immigrants, in that order, are the best performers in school, while Hispanics, mainly Mexicans, lag seriously. In 1990, one of every four immigrants from Mexico of high school age was not in school, a rate markedly higher than that of other immigrants and Mexican-Americans. The study attributes the low Mexican high school participation rate not to dropping out, but to "not dropping in in the first place" — not enrolling at all because of the inability to catch up or the need to support themselves and their families.

Rand's scholars find reason for concern in the large educational gap between Hispanics and other ethnic groups. A quarter-century of high immigration is making Hispanics the nation's largest minority, with one out of three high school students in California now of Hispanic origin. The authors correctly warn that the educational success of Hispanics in the future will determine the quality of the labor force and the demand for public services in key states of the country. But the remedies the authors seem to have in mind would involve expensive financial assistance and special education programs to native and foreign-born Hispanics, with no suggestion of slowing the immigration inflow.

The data used for the study, a longitudinal survey of high school students between 1980 and 1986 raises questions about the timeliness and current relevance of the findings. Information about the educational experience of the decade of foreign born students passing through U.S. high schools into colleges since 1986 might have been even more negatively affected than is suggested here by the high Mexican and Central American illegal immigration streams of the late 1980s and early 1990s and the continued decline of public education in major U.S. urban centers in that same period. A quick glance at the crisis-ridden New York City public schools shows them to be significantly more crowded now by immigration and high birthrates among the city's foreign born than a decade ago.

American Universities: Rising Diversity Means Changing Assumptions

The perspective of Rand's third study, Immigration and Higher Education, is not the performance or needs of the immigrants themselves, but how the nation's colleges and universities are coping in the 1990s with rising enrollments of immigrants and the special policy issues their presence raises.

The report consists of case studies of 14 two- and four-year institutions with large enrollments of immigrants. The institutions were hardly representative: all were large — over 14,000 students; most were public; and no institutions in Texas were included because of the unique nature of the large Mexican immigrant enrollment there.

Immigrants were defined as those foreign-born who are permanent residents or on the track to permanent residence, such as refugees. Although now numbering more than 400,000 nationally, foreign students on temporary "nonimmigrant" visas were excluded from the study (though a third or more of them will ultimately settle in the United States), since their support systems supposedly differ from those of regular immigrants.

Disadvantaged Immigrants or Immigrants vs. the Disadvantaged?

The researchers found that the large and diverse immigrant population of students highlighted what they called "pivotal, unresolved tensions facing the higher education sector." Among the strains is a complex of questions produced by growing campus diversity, such as the entitlement of immigrants to blanket "disadvantaged" status and to special support programs, and the displacement of truly disadvantaged native minorities from racially-based support programs and more gifted immigrants. The study notes:

Displacement may occur either within or between ethnic groups. An example of the former is the possibility... that programs designed to recruit and enroll African-American students are increasingly serving Caribbean immigrants. On some campuses special admissions programs intended to provide access for a small number of promising students whose grades or test scores fall below official criteria are increasingly servicing Asian immigrants with low verbal but high quantitative scores rather than the intended native-born students (p. 100).

Respondents to Rand's survey feared that special support programs for immigrants, whose problems they considered no more serious than many other students, would worsen campus fragmentation. Other points of tension highlighted by the heavy immigrant presence were English language deficiency and the universities' responsibilities for remedying it; the "fairness" of English competency tests to immigrants; and the conflict between immigrant students' cultural traditions and institutional values rooted in Western cultural tradition.

The study finds that while these strains still are not a crisis, left unaddressed they are likely to increase and bring on intervention by state legislators or other outside policymakers — presumably the worst fear of university administrators. Yet many of the very issues identified here are increasingly hot in the public arena, partaking of current controversies over affirmative action, rising costs of public education, language unity and shrinking voter commitment to public assistance for immigrants.

The study's exclusion of Texas universities and nonimmigrant foreign students probably makes the problems encountered seem less acute than they really are. The question of the fiscal cost of providing public higher education to often unprepared immigrants in nowhere addressed. All of these are issues too important to be left to academicians.


Mr. Simcox is the former Chairman of the Board of the Center for Immigration Studies.