New research published Tuesday found that in cities with large numbers of Mexican-born workers, the immigrants insulated native-born workers from steep job losses during the recession.
Researchers said that when labor markets soured, immigrants chased job opportunities elsewhere, freeing up job openings for native-born workers.
"Natives living in cities with many similarly skilled Mexicans were thus insulated from local shocks, as the departure of Mexican workers absorbed part of the demand decline," the report said. The relocation by Mexico-born workers "serves to equalize labor market outcomes across the country and partially obviates the need for natives to move."
The study, based partly on an analysis of 97 U.S. cities from the American Community Survey, was published Tuesday by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Previous research showed that native-born men with some college education -- considered highly skilled for the purpose of the analysis -- were more likely than men with less education to move for a job.
Among highly skilled native men, a 10 percentage point decline in a city's employment from 2006 to 2010 led to a 5.3 percentage point decline in that city's population, researchers said. For lesser-skilled native men, there was no population change.
Low-skilled Mexican-born men, however, were even more likely than the higher-skilled native workers to leave, driving a 7.6 percentage point decline in a city's population, according to the analysis.
"The fact that less-skilled Mexican-born immigrants respond so strongly is, to our knowledge, a novel finding," the researchers wrote.
The paper, authored by economists Brian C. Cadena and Brian K. Kovak, (from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Carnegie Mellon, respectively) also offered other explanations for Mexican-born workers' penchant for mobility.
Because many foreign-born workers do not qualify for benefits such as unemployment insurance, their income is dependent largely on being employed.
The Current Population Survey, the economists said, offered some direct evidence for why workers relocated. Those surveyed are asked why they moved. Mexican-born workers were much more likely to say they relocated for a job. Native workers, according to the survey, often relocated for other reasons, such as to be closer to family.