Snapshot of immigration in Washington State

An address on immigration I made last week to a Washington audience was an opportunity to make a brief profile of immigration in that state.

Washington provides insight into the role of immigration where job growth prevails. Between 1995 and today, the total population grew from 5.3 million to 7 million. During this period, the immigrant percentage of the state’s population doubled.

From 1900, long view

Over the past 100 plus years, the state tracked the rise, fall and then rise of immigrants. Between 1900 and 1910, the state’s entire population more than doubled, while the foreign-born share already high rose to 22%. Then, the immigrant share declined to a low point of 6% in 1970. It rose again after 1990, much faster by far than in-migration from other states, to about 15% today.

(See “Where We Came From and Where We Went, State by State 1900 – 2012” for state by state profiles.)

Compare that with California, which since 1990 has had a 20%-plus foreign born share except for the middle decades in the 20th Century, and which went Democratic in the 1990s in response to an anti-immigrant push by Republicans. Compare with Tennessee, whose foreign born population was under 1% for the first half of the 20th Century and is now 5%.

In 1910, 123,890 Scandinavians accounted for 48% of the state’s 256,000 foreign born residents, which also included Germans and Asians.

Since 1990, hourglass growth

The very early 1900s was a time of very high foreign-born presence in extractive and west coast states such as Colorado, Montana, Washington and California, and in eastern states such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island (here).

Since the 1990s, immigrant workers rose in the typical hourglass way, but more so. At the top level (computer and healthcare workers, etc.), for every ten native-born college graduates moving into greater Seattle, five foreign-born college graduates move in. Compare with a 20 to 10 ratio of foreign-born college grads to native-born grads in Silicon Valley and a 2 to 10 ratio in Knoxville, Tennessee.

At the lower side of the hourglass are farm, construction, building maintenance, kitchen and other jobholders. Between 1990 and 2000, native working age people with less than a high school education declined by 3.8% while the foreign born working age persons with less than a high school education rose by 89%.

Unauthorized workers (almost entirely low formal education) in the state grew from under 50,000 to over 200,000 where it stands today.

Between 1990 and 2004, Washington was one of a few states in which working age foreign-born people increased while the native-born working age people increased, both significantly. It was one of eight states with at least a 20% growth in the native working age population, close to 100% or higher growth in the foreign-born workforce population, and an above average labor force participation rate. This means, in short, that on balance immigrants did not challenge native-born workers.

Wars for workers

The foreign-born working population with low formal education is stable to trending down, due primarily to better economic conditions in Mexico, and shrinking of the difference between Mexican wages and low paying jobs in the U.S. Farmers are engaged in a “wage war” in the wine producing counties in Washington, I was told.

And the Seattle Times reported in January of a “war for tech talent… Computer and mathematical occupations may sound like they belong to the tech world alone, but like business services they can pop up in different industries, from retail to health care. According to projections, jobs in computer and mathematical occupations in King County are expected to grow by 3.5 percent in 2017.”

The City of Seattle has an Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.

The New American Economy has published a profile of the contribution of immigration to the Washington economy. The profile captures the hourglass profile of the immigrant workforce: “While foreign-born workers make up 16.8 percent of the state’s employed population, they account for 63.0 percent of the type of agricultural worker that includes those picking crops by hand. They also make up 45.1 percent of those working as software developers for applications and systems software, and 30.8 percent of dishwashers. Immigrants also play a role caring for the aging population: They made up 30.4 percent of personal care aides in 2014.”

(Thanks to Patrick Koenig, Washington Self-Employers Association)

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