Why the new jobs go to immigrants

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Wall Street cheered and stock prices rose when the US Labor Department announced last Friday that employers had expanded their payrolls by 262,000 positions in February.

But it wasn't entirely good news. The statisticians also indicated that the share of the adult population holding jobs had slipped slightly from January to 62.3 percent. That's now two full percentage points below the level in the brief recession that began in March 2001.

Why the apparent contradiction? Reasons abound: population growth, rising retirements. But one factor that gets little attention is immigration.

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In the past four years, the number of immigrants into the US, legal and illegal, has closely matched the number of new jobs. That suggests newcomers have, in effect, snapped up all of the new jobs.

"There has been no net job gain for natives," says Andrew Sum, an economist at Northeastern University.

Something similar has happened in Western Europe. Each year, about 500,000 to 800,000 illegal immigrants enter the 15 member nations of the European Union (not including the 10 new members as of last May), estimates Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. While it's more difficult for immigrants to get into Europe legally, once in they have more social and labor rights and protections than legal immigrants in the US do, says Mr. Papademetriou. And in Europe, illegal immigrants have a relatively bigger underground economy in which to find work.

If anything, the job outlook for native Europeans is bleaker than for Americans. Unemployment remains high in most of Europe. It hit 12.6 percent in Germany last month, the highest since World War II.

So with people from poor nations striving to get in and natives often losing out in the competition for many new jobs, the US and EU might be expected to have coherent immigration policies. Instead, chaos reigns.

Concerned with extremely low birthrates in Western Europe, the European Commission has suggested common policies to attract immigrants to fill longer-term needs for labor. Instead, national policies vary enormously.

In Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece, for instance, illegal immigrants flood across the borders, despite efforts to stop them, and then once inside are frequently legalized by government edicts.

"There is no rhyme nor reason to much of this," says Mr. Papademetriou.

In the US, President Bush calls for giving millions of illegal immigrants a kind of guest-worker status as a legal path to US citizenship. So far, no specific legislation to implement his suggestion has been put before Congress.

Meanwhile, US border patrols spend millions of dollars a year trying to keep illegals out. And yet, they keep coming, evidently little discouraged by recession or the 9/11 attacks. In the past four years alone, the number of immigrants ran some 2.5 million to 3 million, of which about half were illegal.

They come for jobs, of course. And the Bush administration makes barely any effort to enforce current law. In 2003, a total of 13 employers were fined for hiring undocumented employees.

In fact, neither Republicans nor Democrats have promoted enforcement of immigration law prohibiting the hiring of illegal immigrants, says Mr. Sum, head of Northeastern's Center for Labor Market Studies.

Of course, not every job filled by an immigrant is taken away from a native American, a native German, a French citizen, or other national.

Most immigrants take jobs at the bottom of the ladder, jobs which many natives won't seek because they are considered too hard, pay too little, or have lost status, Papademetriou notes.

And the people they do displace often have little political clout. Sum sees immigrants as one factor behind today's historical low employment rate among US teenagers. Barely more than a third hold jobs. Over the past four years, the number of employed teens has declined by nearly 1.3 million.

Teens used to take many of the entry level jobs offered by restaurants, retail stores, landscaping companies, factories, and other businesses. Now more teens are going to college, and many may not want or need to work. But a new study by Sum and his colleagues at Northeastern finds that 2.5 million teens last year were unemployed, underemployed, or had stopped looking for work in the past month. They faced severe competition for jobs from young adults, older women, and immigrants - most of whom are young.

That lack of employment has social implications. The study notes that youths who work more during their high school years have an easier time transitioning to the labor market upon high school graduation, especially those not going on to college. Jobless teenage women are more likely to get pregnant, and economically disadvantaged boys and girls are more likely to drop out of school if jobless.

In occupational fields with many immigrants, native-born workers tend to have higher jobless rates. The four occupations with the largest number of newly arrived immigrants (1.4 million in construction, food preparation, cleaning and maintenance, and production workers) employ 21.4 million natives, and have more than 2 million unemployed natives.

What employers really want in many cases by hiring immigrants is to hold down wage costs, experts say.

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