Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Occupational Mobility Among Undocumented Mexican and Central American Immigrant Workers

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 4:10 PM
Stanford (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Youngmin Yi1, Matthew Hall1 and Emily Greenman2, (1)Cornell University, (2)Pennsylvania State University
The growing number of immigrants, and their increased presence in certain sectors of the US economy, has been a defining feature of US population change over the last four decades. Aside from great expansion in their numerical presence, substantial public policy focus has been directed at the large share of immigrants who lack legal authorization to work. Current estimates suggest that these unauthorized workers compose about 5.1% of the nation’s labor force, totaling about 8.1 million workers. Within certain industries – e.g., agriculture, construction, food processing – the unauthorized share is even larger, with about one-in-four farming workers and one-in-seven construction workers lacking legal status.

Considerable research has focused on the impact of unauthorized migrants on labor markets, as well as on the impact of legal status on key worker outcomes, consistently found that undocumented workers are subject to lower wages, segregated in a narrow set of low-status jobs, exposed to dangerous work environments, and are more likely to be victims of wage theft and other workplace violations. Of the various mechanisms proposed for explaining the wage and workplace hardships faced by unauthorized workers, limits to occupational mobility has long been considered a primary pathway. Job change – whether through occupational upgrades within a firm or via moves across firms – is regarded by labor economists to be central to wage growth. Yet, theoretical arguments and prior research suggest that unauthorized workers are especially unique in their patterns of job transition. Recent work shows, for example, that Mexican migrants are highly responsive to local economic conditions, leaving markets lacking job opportunities for those where work is more plentiful. It is less clear, however, whether these job changes among immigrants translate into occupational and wage improvements. Returns to job mobility may be especially poor for unauthorized workers given their weak bargaining position in setting wages. Indeed, research following IRCA found that job mobility for undocumented migrants is defined largely by a churning in place; shuffling between low-wage jobs.

In this study, we explicitly test these arguments by developing models of occupational change and mobility among undocumented workers. To do so, we use panel data from the 1996, 2001, 2004, and 2008 Survey of Income and Program Participation that allows us to track workers’ job transitions over 3-4 year periods. Following Hall et al. 2011, we impute the legal status of Mexican and Central American immigrants using information on entry and current visa statuses, citizenship, entry cohort, and participation in public program. With these data, we compare raw rates of job mobility – including those moves taking places within firms and across firms – and assess variation in the direction of job moves based on occupational rankings (e.g., using measures of job prestige and relative earnings potential) between undocumented migrants and other workers (i.e., documented immigrant and native workers). Lastly, we estimate legal status differentials in the returns to job mobility by leveraging wage variation among workers making the same occupational transitions.