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May 28, 2012

According to a study released by the Migration Policy Institute on May 4, immigrants have played a “central role” in both the expansion of vineyards and growth in related industries in Napa County, Calif., over the past two decades.

The study, Profile of Immigrants in Napa County, said the county has a “long history of welcoming immigrants,” who started the area’s wine industry. The study found that the number of immigrants in the county’s workforce increased by 99% between
1990 and 2000, with Latinos constituting the fastest-growing subgroup. The number of immigrant workers then rose by 60% between 2000 and 2008-2009, when non-Latino—mostly Asian—immigrant workers outpaced Latinos.

In contrast, the number of native-born workers in the county grew by 15% during the 1990s and then by 9% during the 2000s, the study found. It said immigrants went from being 16% of the county’s workforce and 12% of its total population in 1990 to 33% and 21%, respectively, in 2009.

The study defined workers as adults aged 18 to 64 who worked any hours in the week prior to their survey responses, and it included both county residents and commuters. The Migration Policy Institute analyzed the U.S. Census Bureau’s population and housing data for 1990 and 2000 and American Community Survey data for 2005 through 2009. The Napa Valley Community Foundation commissioned the study.

The study found that in the latter half of the 2000s, immigrants made up 73% of all workers in agriculture, the lead sector of the county’s economy. Agricultural employment in the county held steady throughout the decade despite the “Great Recession,” the study said.

“Today, many immigrants are relatively high-skilled workers with year-round jobs in the vineyards, although lower-skilled migrant workers still come in relatively large numbers during the harvest,” according to the study. “In 2009, agricultural employment averaged 5,000, peaking at over 6,000 during the summer and fall. Respondents reported that migrant workers are brought in during the harvest, but that agricultural employment is steady for most workers except during the winter.”

Meanwhile, immigrants comprised 39% of all the county’s manufacturing workers and 29% of all its workers in the hospitality sector in the period from 2005 to 2009, the study found. It estimated that wineries employed more than half of all manufacturing workers in the county during that period. Immigrants also made up substantial portions of workers in construction, information, and education, health, and social services.

Participation in the county’s workforce is higher for immigrant men than native-born men but is lower for immigrant women than native-born women, the study found. It also said the county’s immigrant workers earn substantially less than its native-born workers in all industries except hospitality.

“Immigrants’ earnings are highest in education, health, and social services—where workers have the most education—and lowest in agriculture and hospitality, where part-year and part-time work are common,” the study said. “Native workers tend to be much
better paid than immigrants in agriculture, construction, and manufacturing, and the earnings gap with natives is greater for immigrant men than women.”

The limited English proficiency and relatively little formal education of many immigrants workers in the county are among factors hindering their mobility to better paying jobs, the study said.

At least some immigrants in the county would likely benefit if federal lawmakers paved a path to legal status for undocumented agricultural workers, the study added. It pointed to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (S. 1258), which was reintroduced June 22, 2011.

“This bill would allow qualified agricultural workers to apply for temporary, conditional legal status and to eventually make the transition into permanent status after meeting agricultural work requirements and paying fines,” the study said. “The integration benefits of such a plan would likely extend far beyond Napa County’s agriculture sector, as the spouses and children of qualified workers probably would also be eligible for legal status under this legislation.”   05.21.2012

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