native-born) fell over the last two decades, the relative wage of immigrants would have fallen over time even if immigrant skills had remained constant.20

It is very unlikely, however, that this changing wage structure can fully account for the downward trend in relative wages across successive immigrant cohorts, or for the slow pace of wage convergence between immigrants and natives. The same general trends appear in educational attainment, a measure of skill that is invariant to changes in the wage structure. Such data clearly show that the relative decline in skills cannot be attributed solely to the changing wage structure of the United States.

The average rates of wage convergence reported for all immigrants hide a great deal of variation across national-origin groups. To show this diversity, Table 5.14 presents a similar tracking of the wage experience of male immigrants separately for Mexican and non-Mexican immigrants.21 Male Mexican immigrants, who also happen to have some of the lowest initial wage levels, experienced essentially no career wage convergence what so ever—in fact, they may have experienced a decline in their relative wage over time (see also Smith, 1997). In contrast, immigrants (from Europe, China, Korea, and Japan) experienced a great deal of wage convergence over the 1970-1990 period. Within their own work careers, Mexican immigrants have a much more difficult time closing their sizable wage gaps with natives.

The decline in wages of initial entry cohorts appears to characterize non-Mexican as well as Mexican immigrants. Controlling for age and time since immigration, the wage gap for new immigrants has widened substantially over time. For example, Mexican male immigrants 25 to 34 who arrived between 1965 and 1969 had an initial wage gap of 39.8 percent; this gap had broadened to 51.1 percent among men of the same ages who came 10 years later.

In sum, the typical immigrant experienced a modest amount of economic assimilation during his or her time in the United States, but this average hides a great deal of dispersion across national-origin groups. In particular, Mexican immigrants, who have very high initial wage gaps with native-born workers, experience no wage convergence with natives during their time in the United States. In contrast, immigrant groups from Europe and Asia experienced significant wage convergence with native workers.

20  

Essentially, this argument claims that period effects influence the wage of immigrants and natives by the same relative amount. Period effects refer to those changes in economic conditions that are associated with calendar time. For example, we may be experiencing a boom in some years and an economic recession in others.

21  

The data for women are included in Appendix A: Table 5.A3. The patterns are quite similar to those obtained for men.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement