USC Price School of Public Policy

Conference Examines How Recession Impacted Immigration

Knowledge in Action:

Conference Examines How Great Recession Impacted Immigration

By Matthew Kredell

TRPI Hosts Conference on Immigration “Immigration in the Wake of the Great Recession” featured three panel discussions at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center.

The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, housed at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, and New York University’s Immigration Studies project looked at the recession’s impact on immigrants in a recent conference at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center.

“Immigration in the Wake of the Great Recession” offered perspectives of scholars and journalists during three panel discussions covering the immigrant experience.

Panelists said the U.S. economic downturn since 2007 has hurt Latino immigrants more than any group, the public education system in Southern California is failing an increasingly segregated Latino population and a wide-ranging reform of immigration policies is needed to encourage upward mobility and resurrect the American dream.

“I’ve been covering this issue for 25 years,” said Maria Hinojosa, a correspondent and anchor for National Public Radio and PBS. “Usually when you cover an issue that long, it moves forward. With this issue, we’re moving backward, and that’s very distressing for all of us.”

The first panel focused on understanding the recession’s impact. David Fitzgerald from the University of California, San Diego, made a research presentation. He was joined by Miriam Jordan, correspondent for The Wall Street Journal; Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution; and John Skrentny, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies (CCIS) at UC San Diego.

Fitzgerald noted that the United States began increasing its immigration enforcement in 1994. Apprehensions by the U.S. Border Patrol peaked around 1.7 million in 2000 but fell to less than 400,000 in 2011. Because most of the decrease coincided with the downturn in the U.S. economy, it’s difficult to tell how much is due to border enforcement and how much is due to the economy.

A survey by the CCIS found that more than 90 percent of people who try to cross the border eventually succeed. There are nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.

Jordan believes ill will toward immigrants is based on skin color and cultural differences. When she writes about immigrants from Latin America, she gets a higher influx of negative emails than when she writes about illegal immigrants from Poland or Ireland.

However, the cultural progression of the United States can’t be stopped. Last year, more than half of all births in the country were nonwhite babies.

“We’re talking about a major demographic transformation that already is under way even if we cut off immigration tomorrow,” Singer said. “This is who we are and who we’re becoming.”

The second panel focused on issues associated with undocumented immigrants. Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of Immigration Studies at NYU, spoke on the developmental outcomes among children of unauthorized immigrants. He was joined by Hinojosa; Magnus Lofstrom of the Public Policy Institute of California; and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, professor of sociology at USC.

Suarez-Orozco’s findings showed that a culture of fear exists when children grow up in households with at least one unauthorized parent.

According to the findings, the children grow up with constant concerns over family deportations, worries about future access to education and, if the children themselves are unauthorized, a dawning realization of their own status.

“Children of immigrants, from no fault of their own, find themselves in a permanent marginality with extremely problematic long-term prospects,” Suarez-Orozco said.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement figures, the Obama administration deported 396,906 illegal immigrants from October 2010 through September 2011. That total is a record number within a one-year period.

Hinojosa talked about the issue of family separation shown in “Lost in Detention,” a PBS Frontline documentary. For the piece, she talked to a family in Illinois whose mother was deported to Mexico after 15 years in the United States when she was stopped for a minor traffic infraction, traumatizing her five U.S.-citizen children.

“I am very concerned about the violations of basic due process happening on a daily basis,” Hinojosa said. “In my experience of being inside three detention centers, only one detainee had been asked if they had U.S.-citizen children. If we want to stop family separation, we have to at least have a protocol where that question is being asked.”

The third panel focused on an interruption of upward mobility for immigrants. Jody Agius Vallejo, assistant professor of sociology at USC, presented findings from her forthcoming book Barrios to Burbs. She was joined by Pilar Marrero, a columnist for La Opinion; Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA; and Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

Agius Vallejo said that Latino immigrants who make it to the middle class face challenges that inhibit their upward mobility: They can’t save money because they’re always helping family members, and they have less wealth to pass along to children.

The issue was exacerbated by the recession. The American Dream Downpayment Initiative enacted by Congress in 2002 created the highest-ever rate of Latino home ownership.

The collapse of the housing boom meant these Latinos lost all the wealth they put into buying these houses. Low-skilled Latino males with good construction-related jobs lost their employment.

Lopez provided data from the Pew Hispanic Center that household wealth in the United States between 2005 and 2009 had decreased a staggering 66 percent for the Hispanic population, compared to 53 percent for African Americans and 16 percent for Caucasians.

“We built the success of a generation on a pyramid scheme in the housing market, which collapsed suddenly and drastically,” Orfield said. “It has stolen both the wealth and the jobs from these Latino immigrants.”

Orfield also pointed out that public school enrollment in Southern California now is almost 60 percent Latino. Most of these Latino students are segregated by area to weaker schools and don’t go on to obtain bachelor degrees.

“We need some serious, significant and comprehensive immigration reform — not because it’s good for the immigrants, but because it’s good for us,” Marrero said. “We need the brains, and we need the strong arms of these immigrants. We need to integrate these communities that we refuse to legally acknowledge. If we don’t, we’ll miss out not just in the economy but in not being true to our principles.”