Immigrants provide boon, challenges to Worcester, study shows

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WORCESTER – This city of factories, triple-deckers and single-family homes tucked around seven hills, counts almost 38,000 foreign-born residents, more than any other Gateway City in the Bay State, according to a new study from University of Massachusetts researchers.

The study shows that many of the city’s immigrants are better educated, earn more and are more likely to own their own homes than their native neighbors. But it also shows how some put undue strain on public services and health care programs, while fueling a surge in public school students who need costly help learning English.

Most immigrant residents of this central Massachusetts city entered the U.S. after 1990, and come from 85 countries, the study says. They make up a fifth of the population and represent more than a third of all business owners.

Some 3,500, or 9 percent, of Worcester’s immigrants are “unauthorized,” or in the U.S. illegally. While New England’s second-largest city doesn’t have a formal policy to provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, police Chief Gary Gemme has said his officers should not enforce federal immigration laws, to preserve immigrants’ privacy and community relations.

Almost 6 percent, or 2,196 residents, are refugees who arrived between 2007 and 2012, according to the report. Some sanctuary cities like Cambridge adopted those policies in the 1980s to avoid aiding in the deportation of Latin Americans fleeing civil wars in Nicaragua and strife in other Central American nations.

Worcester’s foreign-born residents overall use “public benefits” at a lower rate than their native neighbors, the study says. But it also says 91 percent of immigrants have health insurance, compared with 96 percent for natives. Half of Latin American immigrants and 37 percent of Asians are enrolled in Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, above the citywide average of 34 percent, the study shows.

The number of Worcester students who need help learning English surged to 35 percent this year from about 13 percent in 2004, compared with a statewide climb to 8.5 percent from 5 percent in the same period, according to the study. The most common language spoken by these students is Spanish, followed by Vietnamese.

The study shows that 95 percent of students in this group were born in the U.S., though many have immigrant parents. These children cost the school system an average of $9,303 each, compared with $6,942 to $8,657 for other students. The study says the city’s ratio of English-language learners to teachers is 62 to 1, far higher than the 40 to 1 state average.

More than half, 51 percent, of the city’s immigrants aren’t U.S. citizens. The rest have been naturalized, most in the past 15 years.

Non-citizen immigrants are more likely to live in poverty, and those with poor English language skills – a group that includes more than half of all foreign-born residents – earn at least $15,000 less each year than those with good language skills, the report says. Africans and Europeans have the highest English proficiency rates, at 89 and 81 percent, respectively, while Latinos have the lowest, at 61 percent.

Immigrants who are naturalized citizens have higher incomes on average than natives, while non-citizen immigrants earn significantly less than either group. Naturalized residents also have the highest homeownership rates, at 53 percent, compared with natives, at 46 percent and non-citizens, at 19 percent, the study says.

The largest national groups among Worcester immigrants come from Ghana and the Dominican Republic, at 10 percent each, followed closely by Vietnam, at 9 percent, Brazil, 6 percent, and Albania, 5 percent, the report says. Most of the city’s Asian residents, 70 percent, are foreign-born, as are 46 percent of Africans. But among Latinos, the proportion falls to 24 percent. It is lowest for whites, at 13 percent.

Africans have the highest rate of participation in the labor force, 88 percent, meaning they either work or actively look for jobs when unemployed, followed by Latin Americans, at 77 percent, Asians, 65 percent, and Europeans, at 61 percent. Overall, the city’s residents have a participation rate of 64 percent, slightly above the national 62.4 percent rate.

Africans also have higher median incomes, at $28,222, than all residents, at $23,202, and Latinos fare worst, at $20,454. The poverty rate among Latin Americans matches the city’s overall level at 23 percent, and more than half, 53 percent, of this group has income of 200 percent of the poverty level or lower. For all other foreign-born residents, poverty rates are below the city average.

About 37 percent of all the city’s business owners are immigrants, double the statewide rate. Foreign-born workers earn 26 percent of the city’s $3.7 billion in annual wage income, or $947 million, and spent $472 million locally, enough to support almost 5,700 jobs, the study shows.