Today’s New York Times features an op-ed by sociologist Douglass Massey on the precipitous drop in recent years in wealth among Latino families in the United States. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, the net worth of Latino households decreased 66 percent in the period 2005-2009 in the context of the bursting of the housing market bubble and the subsequent recession. Massey characterizes the decline as “the largest decline in wealth of any racial or ethnic group in the country during the latter half of the last decade.”
In trying to explain the dramatic drop, Massey points to “our immigration and border-control system,” one which, he argues, “has created a class of people cut off from traditional legal and economic structures and thus vulnerable to the worst depredations of the market system.”
Targeted by predatory lenders selling high-risk mortgages, Latino (and black) homeowners were adversely affected (to a grossly disproportional degree) by the housing crisis and the associated rash of delinquent loans and foreclosures. Latinos suffered more, contends Massey, because of border militarization.
As many have pointed out, the build-up had the ironic effect of increasing the size of the unauthorized immigrant population as migrants, once in the United States, settled rather than engage in the back-and-forth movement (or circular migration) that had long characterized the U.S.-Mexico migratory regime. Thus, an unauthorized migrant population of roughly 3 million in 1990 grew to about 12 million in 2007-8, with much of the growth due to migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. This, Massey writes, led to “the sudden creation of a new class of people, working low-wage jobs outside the legal labor markets,” a class “uniquely vulnerable to economic exploitation — such as the promise of a mortgage with little documentation required at signing.” It was also a class vulnerable to job loss, most notably in sectors such as construction where many had found work.
Unfortunately, neither the Pew report nor Massey discuss how the dramatic decline in Latino household wealth breaks down in terms of national origin and immigration/citizenship status. That said, it seems that, given the demographic weight of unauthorized Mexican and Central Americans among Latinos in the United States, Massey is on to something important.