Immigrants made up over half of growth in labor force in '90s

WASHINGTON -- Immigrants accounted for over half the growth in the nation's labor force the past decade, filling openings in factories and textile mills, restaurants and other blue-collar industries, according to a private analysis of government data.

The immigrant influx was felt throughout the country but was especially vital in the Northeast, where the new U.S. residents comprised nearly all of the net increase in the labor force there, said the report released Monday by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

The study of Census Bureau figures between 1990 and 2001 also found that recent immigrants helped fill openings that required more education such as in engineering firms and the high-tech industry.

"What immigration has really done is expand the base at the bottom and to a lesser extent help" fill openings near the top end of the scale, said one of the study's authors, Northeastern University economist Paul Harrington. "This is a story of a long-term shift in the reliance of foreign sources for labor in the United States."

The findings are in line with previously released Census Bureau data showing a 57 percent increase in the foreign-born population during the 1990s to about 31.1 million. During the same period, the Hispanic population grew to rivals blacks as the nation's largest minority group.

Between 1990 and 2001, the civilian labor force grew by nearly 16 million to 141.8 million. Half that growth was due to immigrants who entered during the period of soaring economic growth for the nation.

New immigrants made up 79 percent of the increase in the male civilian labor force, versus 30 percent of the increase among women.

Steven Camarota, a researcher with the Center for Immigration Studies, said the report failed to note other effects of the immigration surge such as increases in school enrollment and on public assistance rolls. Immigrant families tend to have higher rates of poverty than those families headed by a U.S.-born resident.

Allowing immigrants to flood low-skilled occupations may also hold down wages since there are more people competing for jobs, said Camarota, whose group favors some limits on immigration. "Where is the net benefit for natives? It's not clear."

Harrington said federal and state lawmakers must make more of an effort to connect labor market and immigration policy as immigrants become a more vital source of economic growth.

How the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks had on immigrant trends in the labor force is unclear, though the recession that started earlier the year probably did not have a widespread effect, Harrington said.

"This recession was more of a high-end recession in areas like high-tech, than previous declines" and had less of an effect on lower-skilled jobs, he said.