Monday, June 15, 2009

The Midwest is becoming much more Mexican

Posted By on Mon, Jun 15, 2009 at 7:00 AM

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They're here, they're Mexican and lawmakers aren't doing anyone any good by scapegoating their new residents.

That was the take-home message last week, when Chicago-based researcher Rob Paral visited Kansas City to present his new study about Mexican immigration in the Midwest.

Bottom line: Our neighbors from the South are coming to Missouri and surrounding states in record numbers and the overwhelming majority aren't arriving through legal channels.

Whether you're a Minuteman or an immigration reform activist, Paral's findings about our shifting demographics are striking.

A research fellow at the University of Notre Dame and the American Immigration Law Foundation, Paral published his study "Mexican Immigration in the Midwest: Meanings and Implications" earlier this year. Last week, he highlighted his findings for a packed room at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

  • The increase of Mexican immigrants in Missouri has been tremendous, jumping from 162 in 1900 to 4,763 in 1990 -- then rocketing to more than 36,000 in 2006.
  • Between 2000 and 2006, the total native population growth in Missouri was a meager .7 percent. Meanwhile, the Mexican immigrant population grew by 7 percent.
  • The overwhelming majority of Mexican immigrants are undocumented. Of the Mexican immigrants who came to Missouri between 2001 and 2006, more than 70 percent did not come through legal immigration channels.
  • Mexicans are also making up more of the workforce in the Midwest. In 1990, Mexican immigrants comprised 0.8 percent of the workforce; in 2006 that had grown to 2.5 percent.
  • Though they are just as likely to be employed as their American counterparts, Mexican immigrants are more likely to struggle financially. In 2006, 22 percent of Mexican immigrants lived in poverty, compared to 12 percent of native Midwesterners.

So what do these numbers mean and why do they matter? Paral explained.

First, before you start to argue that Mexicans are stealing American jobs, he warned, consider this. U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that, between 2000 and 2010, the largest area of job growth -- nearly 43 percent -- has been in the lowest skilled sectors that require very little education or training. So all those Americans with college degrees and technical schooling are competing for a shrinking piece of the labor pie. "We've prepared our native population for jobs that don't exist," Paral said.

According to Paral, Mexicans are wiling to fill that gap, but immigration laws are stacked against them. "There's a mismatch between our immigration system and our labor system," he said. Because the majority of Mexicans immigrating to the Midwest are working in manufacturing, not agriculture, they can't apply for specific work visas like migrants to farm states like California. The most viable option is a family-sponsored visa -- but those are capped at 20,000 per year. And, as Paral writes in his study, "The 20,000 cap is the same for Mongolia or Mozambique as it is for Mexico. It is not adjusted to suit the different volume of petitions or the fact that Mexico is neighbor to the United States."

"So it's not that Mexican immigrants avoid the legal immigration system but that the legal immigration system avoids Mexicans," Paral told the UMKC crowd.

What's the solution? Recognizing reality, Paral suggests, and making use of our new and growing population of Mexican Midwesterners. "Legalizing immigrants is an economic development strategy," he said. "Local governments shoot themselves in the foot when they are punitive towards immigrants."

Especially since immigrants are the only newcomers moving to places like, Milan, Missouri, where the local kids are unlikely to stick around to work in the meatpacking plant.

"In the Midwest," Paral emphasized, "the demographic future lies with immigrants."

Read his full report here.

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