Visualization of foreign born persons in the U.S.

The Census has prepared an interactive graphic which shows, by country of origin, the number of foreign born persons by state, by percentage of that state’s population — and much more. For instance, close to 3% of New Jersey’s population was born in India. Nationwide, 48% of Nigerians in the U.S. arrived since 2010; but only 25% of Russians, most of whom arrived much earlier.  63% of El Salvadorans are not naturalized. About half of Mexicans in the U.S. have less than a high school degree.

The MS-13 gang, born in Los Angeles, deported to El Salvador

Matt Lakeman does a deep dive into the influence of deported Low Angeles gang members on criminal, particularly gang, violence in El Salvador.  Here is a long posting which summarizes Lakeman’s long article. The essential argument is that Los Angeles gangs of El Salvadorans, mainly M-13, set up business in El Salvador after being deported, though El Salvador was already a very violent country.

As Lakeman writes, in 1995, El Salvador had a homicide rate of 139 per 100,000, the highest in the world and one of the highest rates recorded in modern history. The national US homicide rate peaked in 1980 at 10.2. The 2023 rate was about 5.5, which is very high for a wealthy Western country (others mostly under 1.0).

While the murder rate in El Salvador fell quickly after 1995, it remained the highest on average in the world for much the following years, ranging between 40 and 107 from 2002 to 2018, typically beating out other highly murderous countries like Jamaica, Honduras and Brazil.  But in 2023, El Salvador’s official murder rate dropped to 2.4 per 100,000, putting it in the league of Lithuania, Montenegro, and Canada. The rates of El Salvador’s neighbors, Guatemala and Honduras, remain 5-10X higher.

Congress under President Bill Clinton passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). American crime had just peaked in the early 1990s and anti-immigrant sentiment was flaring up, so bipartisan support arose for a new set of rules designed to combat both with harsher laws and more deportations, particularly of immigrants with criminal records.

Thus, from 1998 to 2014, the United States deported 300,000 immigrants to Central America, tens of thousands of whom had criminal records. El Salvador was particularly impacted:

El Salvador before the 1990s was a savagely violent country due to repression by military dictatorships and civil war, which ended in 1992.  Fighting inflicted something like 80,000 dead (between military and civilian casualties) and more than half a million displaced.  More than one million Salvadorans fled the country throughout the war, close to one quarter of the total population. About half went to neighboring nations, though they were not particularly stable at the time. The rest went to the United States. From 1980 to 1990, the Salvadoran population in the US rose from 94,000 to 465,000. Immigrants tend to settle wherever their past countrymen settled, so most Salvadorans ended up in Los Angeles.

Summarizing the argument of deportations causing criminal violence

The theory of deportations causing a rise in violence from gangs argues that prior to deportations from the U.S., El Salvador had minimal organized crime presence aside from small street gangs and narco cartels keeping a low profile. However, the deportations injected tens of thousands of gang-affiliated Salvadorans with criminal records into the country. These deportees brought their gang culture and criminal experience, rapidly expanding the ranks of gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 by recruiting from an impoverished, war-scarred population.

Many deportees, lacking support, rejoined or reformed gangs upon return. A power vacuum from the new civilian police force, surplus of ex-soldiers and weapons after a long civil war, and lack of major cartel presence (such was in Colombia) enabled the American gangs to absorb local gangs. By 2016, an estimated 60,000-70,000 Salvadorans belonged to gangs controlling 94% of municipalities and costing the economy billions annually.

El Salvadoran gangs in the U.S.

Lakeman provides an account of the origins and evolution of the Salvadoran gang, MS-13, in Los Angeles. The gang emerged from the plight of Salvadoran refugee children and teenagers, who found themselves in a harsh environment, facing harassment from other gangs, and with little parental supervision.

(MS” stands for Mara, a slang term used in El Salvador meaning “gang” or “crew,” and Salvatrucha, the Salvadoran immigrants who formed the gang initially. “13” is a symbolic number representing the 13th letter of the alphabet, “M,” which stands for the Mexican Mafia, a powerful prison gang in California with which MS-13 had ties in its early days.)

Initially, MS-13 was formed by Salvadoran youth who adopted heavy metal aesthetics and Satanic imagery to protect themselves from Mexican gangs like Barrio 18. They gained a reputation for brutality, using machetes as their signature weapon, and engaging in devil worship.

Despite growing criminal sophistication, MS-13’s membership remained predominantly young, with many joining before the age of 15, attracted by the sense of community, protection, and belonging the gang offered to these displaced and vulnerable children. Lakeman highlights how the youth and traumatic backgrounds of MS-13 members contributed to their brutality and the gang’s allure.

Deportations to El Salvador

This graph shows the annual deportations of El Salvadorans from the U.S. between 1990 and 2015.

When the gangs migrated to El Salvador

MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs in El Salvador operated extensive extortion rackets, demanding “protection” payments from businesses of all sizes, even setting up checkpoints to charge fees for entering their territory. They marked their turf with pervasive graffiti and exercised judicial roles, sometimes fairly but often cruelly. Though female members existed, joining typically required being “beaten in” or enduring a gang rape.

Despite constantly incarcerated leadership, the gangs became increasingly sophisticated, developing hierarchies, record-keeping, accounting systems, and diplomacy with narco gangs for lucrative drug trafficking roles. Funds went towards operational costs like bribes, legal fees, businesses, and the brutal war between MS-13 and Barrio 18 over territory. This decades-long war not only saw gang-on-gang killings to control extortion rackets, but widespread civilian murders – for refusing payments, disrespect, or being caught in the crossfire. The violence terrorized El Salvador, causing tens of thousands of deaths and severely damaging the economy.

However, the El Salvador was not a paradise. 

The author writes that El Salvador’s murder rate peaked before the influx of Salvadoran criminal deportees. The US started to increase deportations in 1996 with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and then really started to ramp up deportations in 2003; but throughout that 1996-2003, the murder rate plummeted from 139 to a low of 47 in 2002. This means that El Salvador’s crime rate went down as more criminals came to the country.

In other words, El Salvador’s worst crime years came from non-gang affiliated Salvadorans. Lakeman tried to look into this but have found absolutely no explanations for who was doing all this killing in the late 1990s. His best guess is that there were a lot of reprisals and general lawlessness in the aftermath of the civil war that ended in 1992.

Looking at the post-2003 era, there also doesn’t seem to be much correlation between the number of gang members in El Salvador and the murder rate. Gang member estimates are hard to find, but the peak was likely either in 2015 or 2018. Yet the murder rate was generally parabolic until a peak in 2015 and then went into a fairly fast decline.

Nontheless, there is evidence that though the gangs committed an outsized proportion of criminal behavior, non-gang criminality is still a major factor in El Salvador. A report from the National Civil Police from around 2005 estimated that 60% of criminal activity came from the gangs.





The role of immigrant workers in strategic industries

Conner O’Brien (@cojobrien) has studied the role of immigrant workers in strategic industries. He writes, “As we climb the educational ladder in strategic industries, we find immigrants are increasingly important. 36% of strategic industry workers with a graduate degree are foreign-born.  25% with only a college degree are foreign born, and 15% of those without college degree are foreign born.” Not surpisingly, foreign born workers in strategic industries earn on average more than do U.S-born workers ($106K vs. $91K).

Among foreign born workers in strategic industries with at least a BA, 29% are from India; 13% from China.

Over the past 20 years, all industries have become more dependent on graduate degree holders, but the dependency in strategic industries much more so. Strategic industries make heavy use of computer scientists and scientific researchers.

What are strategic industries? O’Brien’s study says, “We identify Census-defined industries as strategically significant if they intersect with Brookings Metro’s Advanced Industries definition, using the Census Bureau’s NAICS crosswalk. Brookings defines advanced industries as those that are both in the top fifth of industries by R&D spending per worker and are above average in their use of STEM workers. We then examine the workforces of these industries using 2018-2022 five-year American Community Survey (ACS) microdata.

The industries identified encompass nearly 20 million workers and range from software to shipbuilding. Strategic industries are disproportionately in manufacturing and professional services, which combine for 83 percent of employment. In non-strategic sectors, these two categories combined employ only nine percent of workers.”


Construction increasingly depends on immigrant workers

The deaths of six immigrant workers in the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore on March 26 shines a light on the critical role of foreign-born labor in construction. Foreign-born labor may not be formally well educated but they increasingly provide the muscle for much of construction, repair and maintenance.  These are some of the highest paying jobs for workers without advanced formal skills and without English proficiency.

The latest American Community Survey data of 2022 show that 11.8 million workers, including self-employed and temporarily unemployed, comprised the construction workforce in 2022. Out of these, 8.9 million were native-born, and 2.9 million or 25% were foreign-born, the highest number of immigrant workers in construction ever recorded by the ACS. (Go here).

In New York and New Jersey, 37% of the construction workforce were foreign born, according to a 2020 report br the the National Association of Home Builders. Nationwide, the growth of the U.S. born construction workforce has lagged well behind that of the foreign-born workforce. (Go here).



The decline then rise of the unauthorized population

The Center for Migration Studies estimates that the size of the unauthorized population in the U.S, grew by about 6% between 2021 and 2022, to reach 10,940. This was the largest one year increase since the early 2000s when upwards million were added in some years.

After about 2008, the unauthorized population remained between stable and slightly declining. The pandemic years, according to the Center, reverse this trend. The 2022 remains slightly lower than the peak reached in about 2008, which was 11 – 11.5 million.

Unauthorized migration for Mexico has been declining for some years and is the major reason for the decline. Central American migration, on the other hand, has surged.  Over the past 25 years, the Mexican share of unauthorized persons has declined from about 2/3 to 40%. Still, about 10% of the Mexican working age population is in the United States.

The Center used the American Community Survey to estimate the size of the unauthorized population. this is understandably a process fraught with risks of mis-estimation.

Why do I use the term unauthorized instead of undocumented or illegal? Because I think is the most meaningful for the three options.

What is the cause of the surge? The Center does not speculate. I suspect it has to do with the demand and rising wages for workers in occupations often populated wih unauthorized persons. the financial crisis in the late 2000s killed off the rise in this population. It is plausible that the better fortunes of workers in the lower formally educated cohorts are driving the reversal.



How immigration will affect the presidential election

Here in few words how immigration will affect the presidential election: Biden will attempt to recover from a (correct in my view) casual approach to the border crisis, which is actually a number of crises.  Trump, with complete control over Republican messaging, is already calling for revengeful, draconian policies that resonant with many Republicans but leave independents cold.  The independent electorate, if it perceives that Biden is consistently addressing the border crisis as they define it, will settle back to their normal view of immigration as a positive thing for the country that they don’t really want to pay much attention to. Here are five polls which pretty much tell the same story of Biden’s challenge.

Immigration has risen sharply in saliency among voters, from the low – mid tens to the 20s. This is reflected in three separate polls, noted below.

Note, however, that the immigration issue as presented in the political arena focuses only on immigration which is publicly viewed as “illegal.” It was not a slip of the tongue when Biden referred to “illegal” instead of the legalistic term “undocumented” in his State of the Union speech.  I expect that the White House knows full well that the crisis of “illegal” migration embraces pretty much all activity on the Mexican border: individuals and families seeking asylum, those seeking to avoid detection on entry, drug smuggling, sex trafficking.

The bipartisan bill was designed to address all these issues. Below, I report on broad support for the bipartisan bill.

the Center for Immigration Studies summarizes three polls — Gallup, Wall Street  Journal, and Fox News —  all circling around the came core observations that the electorate other than Democrats are very worried about the border crisis, and that Biden is losing on this issue in large numbers.

The Trump team is attempting to leverage this sharply higher salience over the border to a broad assault on all existing unauthorized residents,  Bannon’s statement in late February calls for mass deportations, presumably all 11 million, and also calls for a complete dismantling of the asylum program. Typical with Trump’s instincts, he pushes away more people than he attracts. Americans do not want to see photos of police arresting people at their homes or work, nor do they want photos of large detention centers.

Support for the bipartisan bill  is strong among independents. Self-identifying independent voters rose from about 30% of voters in the 2000s to about 40% today.

A fourth poll Third Way poll shows strong support for the bipartisan bill among independents. The poll breaks the bill down to 12 provisions. In ten of the provisions, independents approved of five between 60 and 69%, and in five more between at or above 70%, for instance “emergency powers to close borders”  and “new federal powers for drug enforcement.” Receiving well less support are two, including “builds more detention centers” (39%).

There is a fifth poll– Marist.  This poll amplifies what I noted above. It shows that Biden must demonstrate that he had a credible, bipartisan plan to control the border

Independents are more than twice as likely to choose the Republicans (38%) rather than the Democrats (17%) when it comes to handling the issue of immigration. However, more than three in ten independents (31%) think neither party can adequately address the issue

44% of independents think increasing security at the United States-Mexico border to reduce illegal crossings should be the top immigration priority.

Only 14% of Americans say deporting those who entered the country illegally should be the top priority for immigration. This is the constituency which Trump is focusing on.

55% of independents think America’s openness to people from all over the world is essential to who we are as a nation.






March 2024 poll on immigration

A Wall Steet Journal poll:

Support the bipartisan package: 59%

Support creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for many years and pass a background check: 74%

Support creating a mechanism for Dreamers to gain citizenship: 66%

Support increasing the level of legal immigration to the U.S.: 58%

Rank immigration as their top issue: 20%, up from 13% in December and above any other topic, including the economy.

Agree with the statement that Biden had allowed more illegal immigration by reversing executive orders that Trump had put in place as president: 45%

Republicans killed the bipartisan deal in the Senate: 39%


The surge in AI jobs and American advantage

The United States has a large lead over all other countries in top-tier AI research, with nearly 60% of top-tier researchers working for American universities and companies. The US lead is built on attracting international talent, with more than two-thirds of the top-tier AI researchers working in the United States having received undergraduate degrees in other countries. (Go here.)

The Wall Street Journal reports, “Amazon has cut jobs across several areas in recent months, citing changing priorities across its businesses that include AI. Google parent Alphabet has been working to marshal resources toward developments in AI while also cutting back on spending. UPS, which plans to cut about 12,000 jobs this year, has been increasing its use of AI and machine-learning tools. And last week, Apple abandoned a decadelong electric-car project and will be redeploying some employees to work on AI efforts.

“In a recent survey Aon conducted among some of its tech clients, about three-quarters of companies said AI skills justify a pay premium, meaning higher compensation for the median new hire relative to that of existing employees.”





Hotel staffing shortages and immigration

The Wall Street Journal reports that “Hotel owners have been on an epic hiring spree. Yet even after clawing back hundreds of thousands of jobs during the past two years, the industry is still light on staff and often struggling to adapt.   Daily housekeeping for all guests, room service and other amenities that were reduced or eliminated during the pandemic are still lacking at many properties.”

A 2010 survey of hotel housekeepers in the U.S. found that two-thirds were born outside the U.S. The largest groups were born in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and East Asia. As of today, easily half of housekeeping staff are foreign born. For the entire U.S. workforce, 18% are foreign born. For all hotel staff, about 20% – 30% are foreign born..