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Mexican-origin residents of Hawaiʻi fare better than Mexican counterparts on mainland, but less well than overall state population
Mexican-Origin Population on the Islands of Hawai'i, 2009-11. (c) Migration Policy Institute

Mexican-origin residents of Hawaiʻi fare better than Mexican counterparts on mainland, but less well than overall state population

The Mexican-origin community in Hawaiʻi represents a small but growing population in this multi-ethnic state, rising 165 percent since 1990, according to a new report by the Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank in Washington, DC that analyzes immigration trends and policy in the U.S. and internationally. The report released today presents a unique demographic, socioeconomic and cultural profile of a Mexican-origin population that in many ways has different outcomes than Mexican-origin counterparts in the continental United States.

While Hawaiʻi’s Mexican-origin residents (foreign born as well as the U.S.-born of Mexican ancestry) have higher employment, reduced poverty, higher levels of English proficiency and educational attainment, and lower incidences of unauthorized status than their Mexican-origin counterparts on the U.S. continent, they fare less well than the overall population of Hawaiʻi across a range of socioeconomic metrics, researchers for MPI and the Ethnic Studies Department in the College of Social Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi found.

Hawai‘i Governor Neil Abercrombie said: “This report, the result of collaboration between the D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute and the University of Hawaii, provides insightful data on our Mexican-origin community and experiences as ‘newcomer’ residents to the Aloha State. In Hawaii, we recognize that our diversity defines rather than divides us. These findings will inform our decisions in addressing the needs of this valued and growing facet of our community as its members contribute to our island culture and economy.”

The report, Newcomers to the Aloha State: Challenges and Prospects for Mexicans in Hawaiʻi, draws on a qualitative survey, in-depth interviews and analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data to examine the state’s growing population of residents of Mexican origin, which stood at approximately 38,700 based on analysis of 2009-2011 American Community Survey data.

Mexican-origin civilian workers work primarily in Hawaiʻi’s tourism-related industries and construction — the two industries that felt the impact of the 2007-2009 recession earlier and harder, leading to higher unemployment than the state average. Residents of Mexican origin are also more likely than the overall population to be in poor or low-income households, and are less likely to live in their own homes.

“Our research suggests that many Mexicans, especially those who are immigrants, occupy the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, along with three other traditionally marginalized groups: Filipinos, Native Hawaiians and Micronesians,” said report co-author Monisha Das Gupta, associate professor of ethnic studies and women’s studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. “Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through October 15, is a timely moment to examine the state’s largest newcomer Latino population.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • The majority of Mexican-origin residents in Hawaiʻi have lawful U.S. immigration status, but many feel targeted by immigration enforcement authorities. About nine in ten Mexican-origin residents in Hawaiʻi are U.S. citizens by birth or naturalization. Only a small number are unauthorized, representing 10 percent of the state’s estimated 40,000 unauthorized immigrants. By contrast, in the continental United States, 58 percent of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants are from Mexico. Despite the high proportion of U.S.-born and legally present Mexicans in Hawaiʻi and small share of the unauthorized population, interviews indicated members of this community feel they have been disproportionately targeted by immigration and local law enforcement officers for detention and deportation.
  • Mexican-origin residents are dispersed within and across the islands, with two-thirds living on Oʻahu. On Maui and the Big Island, certain towns are associated with Mexican residents even as they live in ethnically mixed neighborhoods.
  • Mexican residents’ mobility from island to island is restricted because of the expense of air travel and, in the case of the unauthorized population, due to the risk of immigration enforcement-related surveillance at airports. These barriers to air travel make it difficult for Mexican residents of other islands to access critical services offered only in Honolulu, including health care and immigration-related services.

“Mexicans are not well incorporated into mainstream society in terms of accessing resources and services,” said report co-author Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at MPI. “Further, the Mexican community is divided along generational, legal status and class lines and does not necessarily share common goals and identity. Collectively, this can make it more challenging for the Mexican community to represent itself politically and culturally.”

The report makes a number of recommendations, including that the state address the integration prospects of this steadily growing community by expanding language access for Spanish speakers so they can interface meaningfully with schools, state and local government and courts, and law enforcement; plan for age-appropriate services for young children and elderly residents of Mexican origin, particularly those with limited English proficiency; and work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure its enforcement is directed at its priority targets.

Although Hawaiʻi has a long history of incorporating ethnic groups and immigrants, the report concludes that with respect to newcomer Mexican-origin residents, “Neither the group’s needs nor prospects have been noticed and addressed at a policy level.”

Read the report at: www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/MexicansinHawaii.pdf.

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels.

The College of Social Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa is engaged in a broad range of research endeavors that address fundamental questions about human behavior and the workings of local, national and international political, social, economic and cultural institutions.

This announcement was originally shared as a joint MPI-College of Social Sciences Press Release on September 23, 2013.

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