In the job market, some win, some lose

Updated: Feb 26 2005, 05:30am hrs
Immigrants take jobs Americans dont want. You hear it said all the time. But a new study by a team of economists at Northeastern University suggests that in todays world, the real story is more complicated. Specifically, at a time when jobs are not easy to come by, immigrants and native-born workers sometimes compete for jobsa competition that produces losers as well as winners.

In the 1990s, immigrants captured close to 50% of the job growth in the US. But in a booming economy, so many new jobs were created that the economic fortunes of virtually every group improved.

In the new century, the situation is quite different. Since 2000, the US has produced a little more than two million new jobs, according to the Census Bureaus monthly household survey. This same survey shows that new immigrantsthose who have come to America since 2000gained about the same number of jobs, a little more than 2 million.

In other words, they captured 100% of the job growth over the four-year period. Immigrants, of course, didnt fill every new job opening. But on a net basis, their gains equaled the gains made throughout the economy.

The newcomers to the workforce are a diverse lot. More than 50% are Hispanic; 19% are Asian. More than a quarter of them have at least a college degree; more than one-third dont have a high school diploma. Male immigrants without much education seem to have no trouble finding work. About 85% of them hold jobs, compared to about 60% for their native-born counterparts.

A majority of new workers are men and nearly all are younga plus for the Social Security system, which needs young people to support the growing ranks of retirees. Immigrants work in all industries, but they are heavily represented in a few, including construction and hospitality.

Most of the people who come to this country come with the right attitude: They are eager to work hard, said Paul Jacques, general manager of Boston Harbor Hotel, who, like many in his industry, relies heavily on immigrants to fill jobs.

Employers in a range of fields praise the reliability and work ethic of their immigrant staff. In many markets, immigrant labor has become the employee of first resort, said Andrew Sum, a Northeastern economics professor and one of the new reports authors.

Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard, says the weak labor market of the past four years exaggerates the impact of immigration. He says a balanced look at immigration has to take into account its many benefits, both cultural and economic.

The Northeastern study does not amount to immigrant-bashing. It lays out the numbers, and lets readers draw their own conclusions. Two come to mind. The first is that immigration flows have relatively little to do with the economys health. Immigrants will come in good times and bad times, drawn by the lure of America.

CHARLES STEIN / NY TIMES