Unemployed immigrants leaving Florida as more jobs going to Americans

June 9, 2009                                                                                            Win a green card Subscribe in a reader

NAPLES ó Itís like an immigration criticís fantasy.

Jobs previously held by foreign-born workers are being snatched up by natives. Immigrant workers are leaving the state or returning to their home countries. And, for the first time since roughly 2004, the unemployment rate nationally among immigrant workers may be higher than for native workers.

Those conclusions are based on an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data from the first quarter of this year published by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank and observations made by Southwest Florida officials close to the immigrant work force.

Some of the local officials were surprised to hear the unemployment rate may have been lower among immigrants during the recent past, a conclusion of the think tankís report.

Others, though, are guessing at why it has increased. Aside from blaming the unemployment on the decline in construction industry jobs, they said native workers now are more willing to accept low-paying jobs that immigrants were more likely to take prior to the recession.

"Now, people will take any job," said Vann Ellison, president of the nonprofit St. Matthewís House, which operates a homeless shelter in Immokalee.

St. Matthewís House helps homeless individuals, among them foreign-born workers, find jobs.

Ellison said the task has gotten more difficult for all homeless workers as native worker expectations have changed.

"A lot of Americans have the expectation that they will find a good job, and if itís not the job to our pleasing we are more confident to keep looking. I think with this economy the way it is, everybody is a lot more motivated," Ellison said.

Pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision

Released in April, the analysis was published by the Center for Immigration Studies, which operates under a "pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted," its Web site says.

The centerís authors analyzed data collected during the Census Bureauís anonymous current population surveys, which are conducted on 50,000 households every month.

For use in the report, "immigrant" was defined as someone who is not a U.S.-born citizen. In other words, the report didnít just target illegal aliens.

Visa-holders with college degrees, political refugees, those who have gone through the naturalization process and others are all finding it more difficult to land jobs, even when compared to their U.S.-born peers, according to the report.

Situation has also changed for legal immigrant workers

Allegra Belliard, program director at Catholic Charities of Collier County, didnít need a report to know the situation has changed.

Her organization helps hundreds of legal, documented political refugees assimilate to American culture under an agreement with the U.S. Department of State.

A year ago, Belliard said the organization would place 24 clients a month in jobs. Now, the average is 14, she said.

"Weíre seeing it first-hand," Belliard said. "Itís very hard for employers to place them in jobs. One of the reasons we are seeing this is that now they have a large pool of applicants. They are hiring people who speak English fluently."

Steven A. Camarota, one of the authors of the report, said the data doesnít draw any definitive conclusions as to why immigrants have been hit harder by the recession than natives.

"I think itís partly they are more concentrated in sectors of the economy more hit by the recession," Camarota said, alluding to the construction industry, among others. "They may be somewhat less productive employees, so they are more likely to get laid off. Their language skills might be weaker, so they screw up the order at McDonaldís. They may have their degree from a foreign university. I donít think we know exactly."

Florida - large decrease in the number of immigrant workers

In Florida, the unemployment rate is slightly better for immigrants and worse for natives than it is nationally, according to the report.

However, the analysis is complicated by an apparent large decrease in the number of immigrant workers living in the state.

During the first quarter of 2009, the report found a national unemployment rate of 8.6 percent for natives, 9.7 percent for immigrants. In Florida, though, the native unemployment rate was a point higher, at 9.6 percent, and slightly lower for immigrants, at 9.3 percent.

However, about 153,000 Florida immigrant workers appear to have lost jobs and left the state or the country in the last two years, as Camarota said the data suggests.

This 7 percent decline, of course, would decrease the recessionís effect on immigrant unemployment in Florida.

Dennis Aldana wasnít surprised at the data suggesting immigrant workers have left Florida. He owns Maya Travel, a Fort Myers-based company that helped arrange travel and money transfers for mostly foreign-born workers during the past 14 years.

"Iíve definitely seen a lot of people packing up and leaving to where the economy is better," Aldana said.

Aldana said when the labor-driven Florida economy entered the recession, immigrant workers began moving to other states and "some of them have given up and just gone home."

He adds, though: "When the economy turns around, theyíll be back, especially since theyíve already been here."

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