Immigrants in an economic downturn

The New York Times has been running a series of front-page Sunday articles examining the impact that the great wave of recent immigration – both legal and illegal – is having on various sectors and institutions. This week’s piece explored the question of immigrants’ role in the workforce during a time of rising unemployment by focusing on Morristown, a small town of some 25,000 in the Knoxville metropolitan region that saw its Hispanic population double from 2000-2007. Hispanics now make up almost 10 percent of Hamblen County, of which Morristown is the seat.

Tennessee and Oklahoma share some basic similarities on immigration, both being relatively new frontiers of Hispanic immigration over the past 10-20 years that have swung between integrationist and exclusionary policy approaches. Since Tennessee, with an unemployment rate a full 3.5 percentage points higher than ours, has experienced the recession sooner and more severly than we have, it may provide some clues as to what we might expect in Oklahoma if our downturn deepens.The evidence from the article is inconclusive.

The data suggests that foreign-born Hispanic workers have suffered the greatest job losses during the recession, with Hispanic workers in construction, agriculture, and manufactruing being especially hard hit. Some unemployed immigrants have left the United States but most, it seems, have stayed and are trying to ride out the downturn by taking lower paying jobs. In addition to fewer jobs being available, the Times suggests that federal law enforcement efforts are having a marked impact in driving undocumented workers out of the mainstream economy.

Yet while both native-born Americans and immigrants are struggling to stay afloat, there were no indications that a tighter labor market is generating ethnic conflict. One worker, Donnie Parker, who had lost his $14-hour job as a skilled mechanic at a manufacturing plant and is now applying for minimum wage jobs had this to say:

“It’s not Hispanics I’m competing with,” he said. “It’s everybody. I’m not angry at no one who’s trying to find a job and work. They’re doing the same thing I’m doing.”

A career center worker also noted the apparent lack of conflict:

Melissa B. Reynolds, the coordinator for the career center, said Americans worried about receiving their benefits and getting help finding new jobs, not about competition from immigrants.

“We don’t have anyone that has any beefs with the Latino population that I’ve seen come and go through here,” Ms. Reynolds said.

In Oklahoma, anti-immigrant noise levels seem to have remained far below the fevered pitch of 2007, when the Legislature approved HB 1804 in the midst of a generally booming economy. This is certainly not to predict that immigration could not quickly catch fire again at a grassroots or legislative level. But for now, here and nationally, it seems to be the case that people have bigger worries than the issues associated with immigration.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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