University of Wisconsin–Madison
Focus and Focus+ Icon

Immigrants balance local labor markets

The labor market for low-skilled workers in the United States has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Technological change, growing international trade, and the rise of the service-based economy have all substantially altered the landscape for workers with at most a high school diploma. In addition to facing risks from these structural changes to the labor market, these workers are also subject to greater volatility as the overall strength of the economy fluctuates. Importantly, each of these factors has a substantial impact on the geographical location of demand for low-skilled workers in addition to affecting the overall level of demand. Unfortunately, research has consistently found that, in comparison to college-educated workers, workers with lower levels of schooling are much less likely to make long-distance moves in response to labor market conditions. This lack of mobility is troubling because migration is a key mechanism through which geographical inequality of opportunity is reduced. In recent years, however, the low-skilled portion of the labor force is increasingly composed of immigrants. By 2011, roughly one in five workers with at most a high school education were born abroad. These individuals have revealed a willingness to make long-distance moves in search of better jobs and wages because many of them have lower personal attachment to particular locations within the United States. As suggested by George Borjas, immigration may reduce geographical inequality between labor markets when new immigrants choose locations with relatively strong wage and employment prospects. Recent empirical evidence finds that immigrants perform precisely this balancing role in the labor market. The study summarized in this article builds on this earlier work by examining geographical mobility among Mexicanborn immigrant men and native-born men, during the Great Recession. We use a sample of low-skilled men, defined as those with at most a high school diploma.


Employment, Immigration, Inequality & Mobility, Labor Market, Low-Wage Work, Place, Spatial Mismatch


, , ,