Report: Immigrants Play Outsize Role in Houston Area’s Workforce Yet Earn Less & Many Face Challenges amid Changing Policy Environment
HOUSTON – As the Houston metro area experienced the third largest job growth in the United States between 2016 and 2017, a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report out today sketches the significant role immigrants are playing in the booming economy and life of the remarkably diverse region. One-third of the area’s workers are immigrants, a share well in excess of the 20 percent national rate.
And even as immigrants have been among those most affected by Hurricane Harvey, they have also played an outsize role in the region’s rebuilding, accounting for more than half of workers in the construction industry.
The report, A Profile of Houston’s Diverse Immigrant Population in a Rapidly Changing Policy Landscape, uses U.S. Census Bureau and other data to sketch the characteristics of the 1.6 million foreign-born residents in the 12-county region that is home to 7 million. As of 2017, more Latinos live in the metro area than non-Hispanic whites. And 44 percent of all Houston-area residents under age 18 have a parent who is an immigrant.
The Houston area offers an interesting look at how rapidly changing federal policies are affecting an immigrant population that ranges from high-skilled professionals to working-class families, international students and low-skilled unauthorized workers. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) regional office in Houston was responsible for the second highest number of arrests in the United States in 2017, after Dallas. And tens of thousands of Houston-area residents could be affected by Trump administration plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nationals of some countries that have experienced natural disasters or civil unrest.
The report, which draws on a unique MPI methodology to assign immigration status in Census Bureau data, finds that:
- The Houston area’s Mexican immigrant population is falling at a faster rate than nationally. The foreign-born population from Mexico fell 4 percent, to 612,000, between 2016 and 2017, twice the U.S. decline. Still, Mexico remains the top origin country, accounting for 38 percent of Houston-area immigrants.
- Since 2010, the number of immigrants to the Houston area has grown rapidly for most countries except Mexico. The Cuban and Venezuelan immigrant populations each experienced a 223 percent growth rate between 2010-2017, followed by Nigeria (139 percent). More broadly, there was rapid growth among immigrants from Africa (82 percent), Central America (34 percent) and Asia (29 percent).
- While immigrants overall have high labor force participation rates and are found in large numbers in high-skilled sectors, oil and gas, construction and manufacturing, they earn lower wages on average and as a result have higher poverty rates than the native-born workforce (20 percent versus 14 percent).
- Immigrants with some forms of temporary protection, such as DACA and TPS, face heightened uncertainty. About 36,000 of the estimated half million unauthorized immigrants in the area participate in the DACA program, which allows them to work legally and shields them from deportation. The Trump administration proposed ending DACA, but the federal courts have delayed termination, likely for at least another year. More than 21,000 TPS holders from El Salvador and Honduras in the area face the end of their TPS protections in September 2019 and January 2020, respectively.
- An estimated 27,000 asylum seekers have claims pending with either the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in Houston or the Houston immigration courts. The administration has narrowed grounds for asylum—particularly based on gang and domestic violence, as often claimed by Central American migrants.
- ICE placed detainers on more than twice as many immigrants in Houston-area county jails during an average month in 2018 as in 2016. These requests to hold immigrants for extra time so ICE can take custody almost doubled in Harris County, even though the county in 2017 ended a cooperative agreement with ICE to assist in identifying deportable noncitizens.
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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at local, national and international levels.