By Mikhail Lyubansky, Paul Harris, William Baker, and Cameron Lippard
As President Barack Obama uses his executive powers to grant work permits to some undocumented immigrants and shield up to 5 million such immigrants from deportation, we can expect public attention to shift, at least temporarily to the immigration debate.
Importantly, while the percentage of Americans who see immigration as a major problem has waxed and waned over the last decade (Jones, 2012), public opinion appears to be split across the usual political lines, with 19% of Republicans citing immigration as the single most important problem facing the nation (Suro & Escobar, 2006; Ceobanu & Escandell, 2010).
In this context, it is not surprising that undocumented immigration, a "lighting rod" issue in the United States since before the Civil Rights Movement, is by all accounts, more controversial than ever. In addition to long-standing concerns about undercut wages and educational costs, many Americans are now also worried about the potential deleterious impact on public health and national security (Camarota, 2009; Chavez, 2008).
Most of the debate, however, continues to center on the economic implications of undocumented migration, with many believing that reducing the numbers of undocumented residents would lower unemployment, increase wages, and lower taxes, while others argue that the labor performed by undocumented migrants, often in undesirable and low paying jobs, is vital to the health of the U.S. economy (Van Hook, Bean, & Passel, 2005). Altogether, the public opinion polls indicate that 50-60% of Americans consider undocumented immigration to be a "very serious" problem and another 30% a "somewhat serious" one (Pew Hispanic Center, 2006).
Notably, economists tend to not share the public's concern. For example, in the mid-1980s, when immigration reform was widely debated and when the U.S. government granted legal status to large numbers of undocumented workers, public opinion polls showed that 84% of the public expressed concern about the number of illegal aliens in the country, and 79% supported penalties against businesses that hire illegal aliens (Harwood, 1986). In contrast, 74% of economists surveyed in 1985 believed that illegal immigration had a positive impact on the economy (Moore, 1986). In line with these findings, studies during this time period showed that negative views about immigration generally decreased with higher income and education, suggesting that those who are less threatened economically and have greater expertise regarding immigration tend to have more favorable views about immigration's consequences (Moore, 1986).
That said, the contemporary demographic reality is vastly different from that of the mid-1980s in two important ways. For one, the undocumented population has increased from approximately 3.5 million in 1990 to 8.4 million in 2000 to over 11 million in 2011 (Passel & Cohn, 2011; Batalova & Lee, 2012). Secondly, whereas in 1990 nearly half of all unauthorized migrants lived in California and 80% lived in one of four traditional immigrant destinations (California, Texas, New York, and Florida), by the early 2000s those percentages dropped to 25% and 54%, respectively, with "new destination" states such as Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas all showing five to six-fold growth since the 1990s (Massey, 2008; Lippard and Gallagher, 2011; Van Hook et al., 2005). As a result, dozens of counties and many more municipalities are now for the first time grappling with the challenges of absorbing and integrating an immigrant community they view as culturally different and unfamiliar (Massey, 2008; Lippard and Gallagher, 2011; Odem and Lacy, 2009).
This is particularly evident in Georgia, where the percentage of foreign-born has increased almost 550% since 1990, thus making it a good case-study for the rest of the nation.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau and recent reports, almost 400,000 immigrants entered the state of Georgia since 2000, and in 2011, 942,921 immigrants resided in Georgia, up from fewer than 175,000 in 1990 (Migration Policy Institute, 2011). Of this number, the majority (54%) arrived from Latin America, primarily from Mexico (29%).
While the geographic origin of Georgia's foreign-born population mirrors that of the United States, what is notable about the migration to Georgia is that most of its immigrants are relatively recent arrivals, with 31% entering the country during the 1990s and an additional 43% arriving since 2000 (Migration Policy Institute, 2011). It is also noteworthy that, with an estimated 440,000, Georgia now ranks 7th among all states in the number of undocumented immigrants (Redmon, 2012; Associated Press, 2012). This number comprises approximately 45% of the State's foreign-born population, a percentage significantly higher than the 28% national average (Passel & Cohn, 2011; Immigration Policy Center, 2011).
Despite their relatively recent arrival (and disproportionate percentage with undocumented status), citizenship rates and English language fluency among immigrants in Georgia are generally comparable to national data. Specifically, just under 40% of Georgia's immigrants report having citizenship status compared with 42% of the foreign-born nationally, and 47% report having limited English proficiency, compared to 51% nationally (Migration Policy Institute, 2011). Furthermore, according to the American Community Survey, 29% of all Spanish-speaking households in Georgia are linguistically isolated, meaning that all persons age 14 and over in the household have limited English proficiency. (Migration Policy Institute, 2011)
Notably, neither the lack of English fluency nor other obstacles to employment (e.g., documentation) seem to be keeping Spanish-speaking migrants in Georgia out of the workforce. According to the Migration Policy Institute's 2011 report, 76% of those in Georgia who speak Spanish at home (this includes both native and foreign-born) are in the labor force, compared to 64% of those who speak only English and 70% of those who speak an Asian and Pacific Island language. While the exact percentage of undocumented residents who are employed is difficult to determine, most are assumed to be in the workforce, which according to Pew estimates is 5% undocumented (Immigrant Policy Center, 2011).