During the 1980s, the number of legal immigrants that entered the United States exceeded 7 million, accounting for 33 percent of the change in the U.S. population in the decade. Both the current flow of immigrants and immigrants ‘contribution to population growth are now approaching levels set at the turn of the century. In addition to the astonishing size of this group of immigrants, there are substantial differences in the characteristics of the new immigrants compared to earlier immigrants.
One major difference is their nation of origin. During the 1950s, more than 60 percent of the immigrants came from Europe and Canada. Most of this group came from English-speaking countries; only 27 percent came from American countries other than Canada, and 6 percent came from Asia. By the 1980s, the composition had changed dramatically. Only 13 percent came from Europe or Canada, 47 percent came from American countries other than Canada, and 37 percent from Asia.1Recent immigrants also differ in terms of job market skills.
The earlier immigrants seemed to outperform recent immigrants in the labor market; immigrants arriving in the 1980s tended to have lower skills and low wage rates than the earlier immigrants. There were also significant changes in immigrants’ educational background. Recent immigrants were more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to graduate from college. Recent immigrants’ poorer labor market performance and lower education are highly correlated. The widening differentials in the earnings and employment rates between Spanish speaking workers and English speaking workers observed in the 1980s are attributable to the lower skills and education of Spanish speaking workers.
The impact of immigration is not limited to the current economy; there are also concerns over their influence on the future of the country. Many immigrants come with their family and many have or will have children. It is estimated that in 1990, 9.7 percent of the U.S. population was native born with foreign parentage (i.e., second generation), and this share will increase to 13.9 percent by the year 2050. The economic impact of immigration obviously depends not only on how immigrants adapt to the labor market, but also on the adjustment process experienced by their offsprings. There are also concerns over whether or not the poorer economic status of immigrants will be transmitted to their children.
Census data show that the “second great migration” wave in the 1980s has resulted in a notable change in the demographic composition of the student population. Between 1980 and 1990, the share of all K-12 students who are language minority students increased from 10 to 15 percent. As far as the nation’s interest is concerned, it is obvious that the education these children receive today will strongly affect their labor market skills and the development of the economy in the future.