Oregon’s Immigration Question: Addressing the Surge in the Face of Recession


The men huddle outside the trailer, eyeing the passing traffic. Handmade signs stapled to telephone posts speak for them: “Hire a Day Worker!” The site, a fenced-in lot at Northeast MLK and Everett Street, was launched in 2007, a testament both to Oregon’s recent immigration boom and lack of federal reform.

Since then, Obama’s historic campaign, several wars and a global recession have pushed the immigration question from the national headlines. But in Oregon – where the surging migrant population is on a crash course with a withering economy – the issue is bound to reignite.

Oregon’s economic boom, which started later than that in the rest of country, has ended. Unemployment has risen considerably. Oregon’s 9.0 percent unemployment rate was the nation’s 6th worst in December 2008 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the eye of the storm have been losses in the construction industry, a major employer of immigrants. The hard times there will put new pressure on local legislators and law officials to “clean out immigrants”. Oregonians should not give in to such misguided temptations. Oregon’s immigrants have played a historic role in enriching the state’s economy and can continue to do so if given the opportunity.

Oregon’s immigration explosion is relatively new. The state’s foreign-born make up 9.5 percent of the population, with more than 60 percent of the immigrant population arriving after 1990, according to 2005 census data.

The influx of Latinos to the state is even more recent. Estimates place 75 percent of Latinos coming between 1995 and 2005. Unlike other immigrants who tend to concentrate to urban and suburban areas, Latinos are dispersing across Oregon. Between 1990 and 2000, the Latino population doubled in 21 of Oregon’s 36 mostly-rural counties. Agriculture employment, cheap housing, and existing Latino communities attract the rural migration.

Within the Portland metro area, the largest concentrations of foreign-born population live in Southeast Portland (Ukrainians, Russians, Romanians), Northeast Portland (Vietnamese, Africans), and Central Portland (Asians, Eastern Europeans), according to a study by the Urban Institute. Notably, more Russians and Ukrainians moved to Oregon’s suburbs between 2000 and 2005 than to any other region in the nation, according to a recent University of Oregon study.

Currently, immigrants total over 11 percent of the state’s labor force, up from 5.4 percent in 1990. Yet native unemployment did not increase during this time period.

One reason for this, argues MIT’s Tamar Jacoby in a recent Foreign Affairs article, is that the immigrant workforce should be viewed as complementary rather than competitive to the native workforce. For example, the business owner who can hire housekeepers and landscapers can devote more time to growing his business, and to leisurely expenditures that support other local businesses.

Oregon’s diverse agricultural industries – ranking third nationally for labor-intensive crops – offer a more concrete example of the complimentary nature of immigrants.

The state is home to a $325 million dairy and cattle milk production industry, a $778 million nursery and greenhouse industry, a $380 million fruit and nut industry, and a $200 million wine industry. All are primarily staffed by immigrants. In this case, immigrant labor allows Oregon’s agricultural sectors to thrive in the face of fierce import competition.

Immigrants have historically had a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Nationwide, 25.3 percent of technology and engineering companies had at least one foreign born key founder, based on a Duke University study. Often with few resources or formal education, immigrant entrepreneurship can foster new kinds of services. The abundance of landscaping businesses and nail salons is a testament to such ingenuity. In 2005, over 6,000 Latino and 400 Slavic entrepreneurs operated throughout the Portland metro area, according to one University of Oregon study.

Beyond providing jobs and fueling local economies, immigrant entrepreneurs bring the benefits of globalization to places like Oregon. They encourage trade and investment from their connections abroad.

Immigrants pay taxes, buy houses, food, cars, and clothes just like native residents. Even illegal immigrants – which many immigration-demagogues label as the real problem – have taxes withheld from their paychecks. They also otherwise bring money to the state through sales taxes on local purchases. A study by the Oregon Center for Public Policy found that undocumented immigrants contribute between $134 million and $187 million in taxes annually to Oregon’s economy. These numbers represent only those coming from undocumented workers and exclude the significant investments made through entrepreneurship, agricultural support and the continual purchase of goods and services.

Yet serious immigration reform is needed. A large portion of immigrants spends only stints working in the states, frequently sending money back home. The consequences of this go beyond the obvious fiscal drain. The stint worker will invest minimally in learning English, will often share rent in decrepit neighborhoods, and spend as little as possible in order to maximize savings for abroad.

The problem facing Oregonians is not immigration per se – or even illegal immigration, which constitutes only 10 percent of the migration to the state. The real problem is stint immigrants, who invest little in the long-term health of their new communities and the economy of the state.

The curious delusion about this point is that current federal legislation includes temporary-worker permits as key to reform. By giving only temporary permits to immigrants who might otherwise be coaxed into permanent stay, Washington is explicitly discouraging acculturation and encouraging capital drains.

In large part, the real solution to the downsides of immigration lies in the permanent integration of Oregon’s new residents. When these residents feel they may be here permanently – without constant threat of deportation – they will be more likely to invest in their new communities and futures.

Even the state’s recent job-shedding should not derail Oregonians’ historic acceptance of foreign residents. Oregon’s immigrants will stabilize agriculture and other service industries by providing cheap labor through hard times.

If the incoming administration manages the recession correctly, Oregon’s economy will soon recover. To rebound quickly, the state will need to employ thousands – natives and immigrants – in the infrastructure and Green packages coming from Washington. Oregon’s post-recession economy, like its pre-recession economy, will depend on immigrant labor.

A comprehensive understanding of Oregon’s immigration question must go beyond viewing the huddle of men on MLK and Everett every morning as mere numbers, bodies for pay.

A true understanding of the issue will surface only by looking beyond the numbers to recognize these men’s potential, resourcefulness and culture as indispensable components that once shaped our nation’s identity and will continue to mold its future.

Ilie Mitaru is the founder and director of WebRoots Campaigns, based in Portland, OR, the company offers web and New Media strategy solutions to non-profits, political campaigns and market-driven clients.