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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Immigrant Employment and Mobility Opportunities in California


The 1990s were a period of record immigration to California and the United States, with both legal and unauthorized immigrants arriving in the country and state, a trend that will likely continue in the twenty-first century. Many observers have been concerned that a bimodal pattern of immigrant education, with many immigrants either being poorly or very well educated, overlaps too closely with the increasingly polarized distribution of job growth in the country. The authors’ analysis of changing employment patterns and the shifting distribution of bad and good jobs in the 1994–2000 economic boom suggests, however, that immigration is not fundamentally driving the emergence of a polarized job structure in either California or the United States. That structure derives largely from changes among the native born, suggesting that shifts in labor demand explain the pattern, rather than increases in the supply of less-skilled and highly skilled immigrant workers. Immigrants in California, however, do contribute to the polarization to varying degrees, depending on race/ethnicity, gender, and location. The authors’ analysis of arrival cohort data suggests substantial immigrant upward mobility, mainly from lower to middle-range jobs in Los Angeles and from middle to higher range jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area. This does not mean that predictions based on racial/ethnic stratification theories are inaccurate, but it does suggest that such perspectives should be modified by taking into account the effects of newcomer status and the likelihood that immigrants may experience more upward mobility than many commentators presume.

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