Improving the lives of undocumented immigrants will benefit us all
by Jamshid Damooei and Gerhard Apfelthaler
According to the latest available information, undocumented workers comprised 7.1% of Ventura County’s population in 2019. If we add a conservative estimate of family members, who are U.S. citizens, the total number of people living in undocumented family households reaches 9.8% of the county’s population, or a total of 83,000 people. If all of them lived in one city, it would be the fifth largest in the county.
Undocumented immigrants are hardworking people. In 2019, they had a labor force participation rate of 74.1%, which is above the county’s average of 65.5%. Their employment rate was 70.7% compared with 61.7% of the county average, although they suffered from a slightly higher rate of unemployment of 3.4% compared with the county’s average of 3.3%. Undocumented workers, provide 70% of total employment in agriculture, 15.3% in construction, 11.7% in wholesale, 13.7% in retail and 9.5% in manufacturing, and the list continues.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, undocumented immigrants supported the production and distribution of food and many other products within the region. Yet we do not hear much about their vital role in serving the county’s common good. Younger groups of undocumented immigrants help to keep our regional population younger. Based on a recent study by the Ventura County Community Foundation, by 2060, Ventura County will experience a growth rate of about 300% in its population ages 85 and older while its population ages 15 and younger will shrink by almost 13%. For every two children, we will have one person age 85 or older. Undocumented immigrants present a much younger population structure, and their presence improves the population dependency ratio (people age to 45 to 64 divided by the total population age 80 and older.) In 2022 this ratio was 5.9, and it is projected to decrease to 3.6 by 2030 and 2.3 by 2040.
The image of undocumented immigrants with low educational attainment is exaggerated and, in many respects, incorrect. In Ventura County, some 9% of undocumented immigrants have bachelor’s degrees or higher, and 39% have high school diplomas or the equivalent. The belief that undocumented immigrants can only fulfill low-skill jobs is unfounded.
Despite having such a vibrant and important population, we have solvable challenges that can bring positive changes for the broader community. Some 11.3% of undocumented immigrants ages 3 to 17 do not attend school. Helping them to get an education is important for their own futures and the future of the wider community. Some 57% of undocumented immigrants do not have health insurance — 46% of the total number of uninsured people in the county. The inability to provide the needed health care resulted in an unnecessary continuation of the pandemic. Some 20% of undocumented immigrants live below the federal poverty level in Ventura County and some 5% live in abject poverty (below the 50% poverty level). 80% of undocumented immigrants live in rental homes, and the rise in housing costs has made them vulnerable.
Imagine living in a place for more than 20 years and still being considered illegal, unauthorized or undocumented, with reduced access to education or healthcare, and no opportunity to build generational wealth. 77% of the undocumented population in Ventura County has been living in the United States for more than 10 years — 28.3% of them for 20 or more years. These are our neighbors who contribute to our economy and our community. Our economic reality, our history of being a nation of immigrants, and our humanity tell us that there should be no difference between our county’s inhabitants. Embracing undocumented immigrants and addressing their challenges as our own is the most logical and caring way forward. We should ask ourselves: What does it take to call a place a home?
Jamshid Damooei, Ph.D., is a professor of economics and executive director of the Center for Economics of Social Economics and Gerhard Apfelthaler, Ph.D., is a professor of management and dean of the School of Management at California Lutheran University.
This story was originally published on the VC Star website.