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News / Northwest

Immigration, workforce integration addressed at economic conference

By Cheryl Schweizer, Columbia Basin Herald, Moses Lake
Published: May 8, 2024, 6:19pm

ELLENSBURG — The pattern followed by current immigrants to the United States is similar to earlier periods of higher immigration. Both workers and employers must adjust when integrating immigrants into the workplace. Those were among the conclusions from speakers discussing immigration and its impact on the workplace in Washington at the annual Economic Outlook Conference Monday at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

Santiago Perez, associate professor at the University of California, Davis, discussed studies he has conducted on immigration past and present. A panel of educators and industry experts talked about challenges facing workers and employers, and what’s happening to help both adapt. The panel included Claudia Wright, CWU associate professor of sociology; Roslyn Moes, CWU international student advisor; and Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington Tree Fruit Association.

Perez said what he termed mass migration into the U.S. has come in two periods, from about the 1850s to the early 1920s, then from the early 1970s to the present. Migrants make up about the same percentage of the U.S. population as they did in the first era of mass migration, about 13% to 15%.

First-generation immigrants, then and now, were and are less likely to catch up economically with people born in the U.S., he said.

“The key difference between then and now is that the starting point is going to be very different in the past than the present. Today, the migrant starting point in the first generation is going to be lower than it is in the past,” he said.

The children of immigrants, however, follow a similar trajectory to second-generation Americans in the past.

“The children of migrants really do catch up with the children of the U.S. born,” he said.

The ethnic makeup of immigrants has changed, and so has their entry level into the economy, he said.

“And perhaps surprisingly, despite all these changes in terms of migration policy, country of origin, and even the starting point of the first generation, the catching up (of the second generation) is actually very similar between the past and present,” Perez said.

In addition, research shows that second-generation Americans do better in the U.S. than almost any other country, he said.

Current immigrants, whether they’re here for the short or long term, face an array of regulations that sometimes limit their ability to get ahead, according to the panelists. Wright cited cases when an immigrant brings a spouse.

“Somebody gets a visa to work in the United States, and (the spouse) gets a reason to come, but they are not able to work,” she said.

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People also have the misconception that immigrants, especially from Latin America, are poor and unskilled, she said. But even immigrants without formal education or training have skills; she cited the case of a friend who has impressive cooking skills.

DeVaney said that at least in the case of the tree fruit industry, the idea that immigrants take jobs that otherwise would be filled by people already here is not true. Apple, cherry and pear growers must work with Washington Employment Security and see if they can recruit workers locally before recruiting internationally.

“What we found last year is that 37,500 jobs were advertised through the WorkSource system that otherwise growers did not think they’d be able to fill, and we had a grand total of 19 referrals,” he said.

About 64% of farmworkers are from Latin America, he said, most from Mexico. That has led to what he called an equivalency fallacy, where people assume most Latin American immigrants are farmworkers.

“A lot of Latinos struggle sometimes, moving into other employment, because there’s a perception that is who that community is. It’s not a job, it’s an identity,” he said.

Immigrants also encounter language barriers, wherever they come from, although students who come to CWU must demonstrate proficiency in English before they are accepted, Moes said. But when it comes to training or being in the workforce, there’s often a second layer of proficiency required.

“There’s also an employment language. Like, what is a resume?” Moes sad.

DeVaney said sometimes people make the assumption that everyone from a specific country had similar experiences and think much the same way — but that’s not necessarily true.

Different cultural experiences sometimes lead to misunderstandings, he said. He cited the situation in the tree fruit industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, where workers expected more information about coworkers than employers were allowed by law to share.