The New Latino Workforce

Mark L. Johnson / May 2015

Since the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, America has wrestled with the influx of illegal immigrants principally, but not exclusively, from south of the border.
    
Many Americans feel threatened by immigrants who arrive in this country, land jobs and receive access to education and emergency room care. But immigration is a fact of life, and it goes through ebbs and flows. Recently, there has been one notable ebb: a decline.
    
For the first time in nearly two decades, immigrants do not account for the majority of Hispanic workers in the United States. According to Pew Research Center, most Latino workers today are naturalized, red-white-and-blue Americans.

Immigrant Latinos Lose Majority
It’s noteworthy. In 2013, less than 50 percent—49.7 percent to be exact—of the more than 22 million employed Latinos were immigrants. Immigrant Latinos are down sharply from their pre-recession peak of 56.1 percent in 2007.
    
So, when you see a Latino worker busy on a construction site, you might think he’s an immigrant. It had been a fair assumption to make, but not anymore. Statistically, he’s more likely to be an American.
    
The Latino population is changing. The Great Recession, a slow-growth post-recession economy, tighter border controls and more deportations have served to mitigate migration to the United States from Latin America in recent years. As the recession steamrolled forward, growth in the Latino immigrant workforce (people ages 16 and older) slowed. The opposite happened with U.S.-born Latino workers—job growth for them expanded rapidly.
    
This is a reversal of the mid 2000s. From 2004 to 2007, during the height of the construction boom, Latino immigrants, mostly from Mexico, gained 1.6 million jobs. They landed two jobs for every one job secured by a U.S.-born Latino.
    
But after the recession ended in 2009, the demographics switched. Latinos overall gained 2.8 million jobs from 2009 to 2013, but only 453,000 jobs went to Latino immigrants. The boom and bust in the U.S. housing market changed the landscape, and construction lost 520,000 Latino immigrant workers.
    
Today, immigrants are still employed in construction, but the numbers are down. Foreign-born Latinos working in construction fell from 19 percent in 2007 to 15 percent in 2009, where it has stayed.
    
And if Latino immigrants didn’t leave the United States because of the recession, they left because the Obama administration deported them. In 2013, a record 438,421 unauthorized immigrants were deported. Stepped-up enforcement has resulted in more than 2 million deportations since Obama took office, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Wages Up Moderately
The earnings of Hispanic workers have risen since 2007, but not by much. The median weekly wage in the fourth quarter of 2013 for full-time Hispanic workers was $570. That compares to $556 in the fourth quarter of 2007 (in current dollars)—an increase of 2.5 percent.
    
It’s important to break down the figures. The median weekly earnings of U.S.-born Hispanics working full time fell from $684 in 2007 to $640 in 2013—declining 6.4 percent. And, foreign-born Hispanics working full time saw their weekly rate of $500 remain unchanged.
    
But, why did wages for Hispanics overall increase from 2007 to 2013 if neither U.S.-born nor foreign-born Hispanics experienced wage increases? The answer lies in the changing composition of the Latino workforce. Because Hispanic immigrants earn less than U.S.-born Hispanics, their retreat from the U.S. workforce raised the estimated earnings of Latinos overall.

Job Losses, Then Migration
The data are interesting. Take the number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico, which has been declining. Undocumented Mexicans peaked at 6.9 million in 2007 and by 2012 was down by a whopping 1 million individuals.
    
Also, Hispanics lost 686,000 construction jobs during the recession. They regained only 74,000 of those jobs in the recovery, Pew Research says. This created a migration away from construction to food services and lodging, wholesaling and retailing and professional and other business services—three industries that accounted for 45.5 percent of the jobs growth for Hispanics from 2009 to 2013.
    
What can we conclude? Immigration reform could secure more legal workers. It could set up a pathway to citizenship for millions and put labor back into play in construction. Even so, demographics trends will always ebb and flow like the sea. So, it’s good to pay attention to the figures before jumping to any conclusions.

Mark L. Johnson is an industry marketing consultant and writer. He tweets at @markjohnsoncomm and connects at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.