Source: Migration Policy Institute
Immigrants are experiencing a faster rate of job growth than native-born Americans in the economic recovery, data show.
"It seems that the rate of unemployment for immigrants is slightly lower than for the native group," said Jeanne Batalova, a policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, which analyzed employment data for the region -- Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama -- from 2008 to 2010.
One reason immigrants seem to do better when the economy improves has to do with the types of industries they work in, she added.
The immigrants and the U.S.-born tend to work in slightly different industries, she said. About 24 percent of the U.S.-born in Tennessee work in education and health care, while 17 percent of immigrants in the state work in the hospitality industry, which tends to need fewer skills and pays less, she said.
When hiring picks up, immigrants might benefit earlier because of what they offer the labor market, which includes mobility and a willingness to take part-time or lower-paying jobs, she said. In this region, in addition to hospitality, a large number of immigrants tend to work in low-skilled jobs, particularly construction, agriculture and manufacturing.
While immigrants sometimes do compete with other low-skilled workers, Batalova said, recent immigrants often move into jobs that long-term immigrants and natives are not taking.
"They often fill a niche that's vacant," she said. "That's what happened in a number industries like meat packing and certain agricultural jobs."
The slower rate of jobs growth for the native-born reflects the relatively slow growth in their populations, experts said.
Locally, the U.S.-born population increased 1.7 percent in Tennessee and 2.3 percent in Alabama. Meanwhile, the immigrant populations grew 18 percent in Tennessee and 30 percent in Alabama from 2008 to 2010, according to the Migration Policy Institute figures.
Georgia had more modest increases during the same time -- a 5.3 percent increase among the foreign-born and a 0.4 percent among natives.
Immigrants make up 5 percent of the total population in Tennessee and 4 percent in Alabama. In Georgia, however, immigrants comprise 10 percent of the total population.
Nationwide, the Pew Hispanic Center found that Hispanics and Asians are experiencing a faster rate of growth in jobs than other groups, according to a recent report that analyzes labor market trends in the economic recovery from 2009 to 2011.
The differences in job growth across groups reflect the differences in population growth, according to the Pew. From 2007 to 2011, the Hispanic working-age --16 and older -- population increased by 12.8 percent and the Asian working-age population by 10.9 percent.
But, during the same period, the white working-age population grew only 1.3 percent, and the black working-age population by 5 percent.
"Since much of the addition to the workforce is Hispanic and Asian, their share in employment growth is high," according to the report.
Immigrants also are showing higher employment rates because they're more willing to move to where the jobs are, some experts said.
"It would be my guess that folks that came to this country, the reason they came is because of work," said Mike Reeves, regional extension agent in commercial horticulture for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
In Alabama, the share of immigrants in the agriculture industry increased from 2 percent in 2008 to 7 percent in 2010, the latest year available, according to the Migration Policy Institute data.
Reeves said there aren't as many U.S.-born working in agriculture in the state because they tend to move into higher-paying jobs with more benefits.
"Our whole society is getting less rural and more urban," he said. "There are less people around to work."
There's been a need for foreign labor for the past 30 years in agriculture in Alabama, and it's increasing, he said.
In neighboring Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal proposed a plan last summer to have inmates on probation fill some of the 11,000 jobs open in the state's agriculture industry. The suggestion yielded mixed results, according to news reports, with some workers quitting because it was too labor-intensive and hot.
In Northwest Georgia, a large percentage of the foreign-born work in the carpet industry.
"Generally, the discussions I've heard of is that you had an increase in demand for floorcovering products out of this area [in the '90s] that required more labor," said Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, whose grandfather co-founded the carpeting company J&J Industries.
For a long time, carpeting and floorcovering provided most of the jobs in Northwest Georgia, and people from all over Eastern Tennessee and the northeastern part of Alabama flowed into the area, he said, until their home communities developed more businesses and industries, allowing them to stay home.
"So you had more growth in the [carpet/floorcovering] industry and more demand for labor at the same time your traditional labor pool was finding other economic opportunities, and I think there was a significant inflow of foreign labor to fill that vacuum," he said.
Georgia and Alabama are among a handful of states that have passed what some consider among the toughest immigration enforcement laws in the country. Mirroring Arizona's 2010 law, the first such immigration reform in the country, Georgia and Alabama require employers to verify an applicant's immigration status before hiring using a federal database and allow law enforcement officers to ask about the immigration status of people stopped for other reasons.
Lawsuits have been filed against most of these laws, and the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on Arizona's this month.
Batalova said it's still too early to know what the impact of these laws has been on immigrants and employment.
"However, judging by the numbers in Alabama, both the immigrant and employed-immigrant population, those numbers increased, they didn't drop," she said.
In Alabama, the immigrant population age 16 and older increased almost 30 percent from 2008 to 2010, from 119,277 to 154,454.
During the same period, the employed immigrant population increased from 80,402 to 101,394, or 26 percent, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
"While it's still early to tell, preliminary evidence may suggest how the economy is doing affects to a great degree who is moving and what types of jobs they are taking," she added.
Contact staff writer Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@times freepress.com or 423-757-6578. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Perla_ Trevizo.