Researcher to share immigration study results

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

Wornell

DUBOIS — When researchers at Ball State University’s Indiana Communities Institute studied immigration in Indiana, they found that several pervasive beliefs Hoosiers hold about the issue aren’t backed by facts.

Emily Wornell, an assistant professor, rural sociologist and demographer, worked on the study — which partnered with the Center for Business and Economic Research and the Rural Policy Research Institute Center for State Policy — and will visit Dubois Branch Library at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday to present the findings.

Wornell works with rural community leaders across the state to help them manage their changing communities with respect to immigration.

In her research, she found three major misconceptions about immigration: incoming immigrants are less educated than native-born Americans; immigration causes wage decreases; and today’s immigrants aren’t assimilating like previous waves of immigrants did.

When it comes to education levels, Wornell said, Indiana’s immigrant population tends to be as educated as native-born Americans, if not a little more. When Wornell and the research team looked at percentages of college degree holders in both populations, they found that at the bachelor level, foreign- and native-born populations had about the same percentage of degree holders. When they looked at the graduate level, the foreign-born population’s percentage was double that of the native-born population.

Wornell said she believes the myth that immigrants are less educated than the native population persists because of the national discourse’s focus on immigrants from Latin America. Those immigrants do tend to have a lower level of education, but that’s in general. Some immigrants from Latin America do have college degrees. It varies based on a population’s country of origin.

Indiana also has immigrants from Europe, Asia and Southeast Asia. While those groups tend to have higher levels of education than Latin American immigrants, again it depends on their country of origin. Immigrant populations from some Southeast Asian nations, for example, show lower levels of education.

“It’s incredibly nuanced,” Wornell said. “It’s incredibly complicated, and it’s not as simple as saying immigrants have lower levels of education or even Latin American immigrants have lower levels of education.”

Wornell pointed out, however, that education is not the only measure of human capital; it’s just a formal one. Immigrant populations bring informal human capital regardless of their education level, Wornell said, in qualities such as entrepreneurship and ingenuity.

When the researchers looked at immigration’s effect on wages, they once again found that it wasn’t a simple situation. That’s because wages have both a supply and demand side.

On the supply side, it seems like having more workers would drive down wages. But on the demand side, a higher population creates more demand for services and therefore, more jobs. In their study, the researchers looked at both aspects.

“Generally what we find is that native-born and immigrant populations just aren’t doing the same kind of work,” Wornell said.

In situations where both populations are working the same jobs, education level played a part. For those with less than a high school diploma, researchers found that immigration did cause a slight wage decrease — by 10s per month — but that decrease disappeared after a person held a job for 90 days.

“[The decrease] is not insignificant if you’re living paycheck to paycheck,” Wornell said. “But it’s not considered a significant wage decrease [in research studies].”

For populations with higher levels of education, immigrant populations led to increased wages — in the 100s per month — but again, the change only persisted for the first 90 days of employment.

The final major misconception is about assimilation. The myth, Wornell said, is that today’s immigrants, particularly those from Latin America, don’t assimilate like previous immigrants from Europe and Asia.

Once again, research shows that it’s not that simple. Immigration from Latin America works differently than the waves of immigration in the 1800s and 1900s, Wornell said.

“Then, you had a big wave of immigration, and then it ended,” Wornell said. “You don’t see that with immigration from Latin America.”

Immigration from Latin America to the U.S. spans at least 150 years, Wornell said, with some Spanish-speaking communities in areas like Texas never immigrating at all. Their lands were simply taken over by the U.S. when it acquired Texas and other southwestern areas from Mexico in the 1800s.

The other complication is that Latin American immigration is continuous, and has been for decades. Because of that, Wornell said, Latin American immigrant communities in the U.S. continue to have new arrivals, which allows for the continued use of the Spanish language and the practice of Latin American customs.

European immigrant communities in the 1800s and 1900s didn’t have that continuous renewal, Wornell said, so those populations lost their native customs and languages through the generations.

That’s not to say Latin American immigrants aren’t assimilating. They are, Wornell said, but assimilation looks different for that population than it did for other immigrant populations.

Although Wornell said the research doesn’t show any hard answers for why these misconceptions exist, it does show that they are persistent. The political discourse and cultural feelings toward Latin American immigrants in our country today are similar to what German immigrants faced during World War I and World War II and what all immigrant populations faced during the Industrial Revolution when labor jobs were being lost to automation.

“I think what we’re seeing today is the same thing,” Wornell said.

The key to moving forward is local leaders figuring out how to engage the immigrant populations to leverage them for their communities’ future, Wornell said.

Research shows that immigrant populations are economically active and involved in their communities, if they’re given the opportunity. They’re also an important source of population growth, especially for rural Indiana, Wornell said.

She added that immigrant populations are responsible for 25% of Indiana’s population growth, especially in rural counties.

When she and other researchers looked at population growth by county, 17 counties saw overall population decline, but their immigrant populations increased. In two counties, the population only increased because of the foreign-born population.

“All of those were rural counties,” Wornell said. “What that means is that ... the demographics of those places are completely different. The population setup is completely different from 20 to 30 years ago.”

While that demographic change brings opportunity for growth that rural areas wouldn’t have otherwise, it also brings more opportunities for racial and ethnic tensions, Wornell said. The key for leaders is figuring out how to manage that change in their communities.

Wornell’s advice? Recognize that your community is going to look different and that you’re not going to be able to go backwards, and then do the work necessary to take advantage of the opportunities for growth that immigration provides.

“It is 100% worth doing,” Wornell said. “But it’s going to take the long game.”

Wornell will talk more about immigration issues — including immigration’s effect on education and social safety nets — at her presentation at Dubois Branch Library Tuesday evening. You can RSVP for the presentation here.




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