Playing Catch-Up: Legalization and the Labor Market Trajectories of Unauthorized Latin American Immigrants
Sisk, Donald Blake
Stratification mechanisms that limit or promote upward mobility are fundamental to understanding how the process of cumulative advantage develops over the life course. This is especially true for immigrants, who are a large and growing segment of the U.S. labor force, but whose earnings and occupational mobility are restricted by unauthorized status. In this dissertation, I investigate the labor market trajectories of Latin American immigrants that transition from unauthorized to authorized status and examine whether and how two life course processes are determinants of hourly wages and occupational standing: the scarring of previous unauthorized status, or the turning point of legalization. Using data from the 2003 New Immigrant Survey and 2001-2003 Survey of Income and Program Participation and a quasi- experimental design with panel data from several comparison groups, I show that the wages of legalized immigrant women and men are 25 percent higher than they would be if they had remained unauthorized. My findings also indicate that legalization benefits the occupational standing of immigrants, as they experience upward occupational mobility into jobs with higher median wages and improved occupational attributes following legalization. Overall, the findings support the hypothesis that legalization is a turning point in immigrant labor market trajectories and indicate that – even in a period of diminished economic prospects for Latin American immigrants – legalization remains a robust mechanism of socioeconomic mobility.