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Affordability, Low Wages Remain Challenges For Immigrants In Austin, Study Shows

The Austin skyline
Gabriel C. Pérez
High housing costs, low wages, limited access to resources and the threat of displacement are some of the challenges that immigrants face in Austin, according to a report from the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

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Austin is trying to be a more welcoming city for immigrants but high housing costs and low wages continue to be a barrier, according to a new report from public policy researchers at UT Austin.

In the construction industry, for instance — a sector that’s reliant on immigrant workers — the annual wages in Austin fall below the state and national numbers. Median wages in the construction sector in Austin are $32,960, while at the state level, it’s $34,980. At the national level, it’s $43,000.

“I … was very surprised it was lower than the state’s, because construction is so important in a city like Austin that's growing,” says Ruth Wasem, the report's lead author.

The report, “Advancing Immigrant Incorporation in Austin, TX,” analyzed measures that are seen as being key to immigrant inclusion and found that Austin does well at providing legal support and government leadership, but it still has work to do when it comes to improving livability and job opportunities for immigrants.

“Austin's on the right trajectory. They're starting to do the kinds of things that a city government should be doing,” Wasem says. “But they still have to follow through if they want to be more inclusive of immigrants in the city.”

The City of Austin hired researchers from the LBJ School of Public Affairs to conduct the study and help it determine how it can be a more welcoming community to immigrant populations.

Over the last several years, Austin has been trying to be more inclusive toward non-native residents. It’s had a Commission on Immigrant Affairs for more than a decade, and the city is working toward creating an immigrant affairs office. Last year, the city hired immigrant affairs manager Rocío Villalobos.

“I think if we are really going to be able to move in that direction of being a city that is truly having that goal of being the most livable city and having a city that is really welcoming for all, then that means that we need to be aware of the challenges that the folks that are living at the margins are experiencing and ensuring that we're also doing what's in our capacity to meet their needs and to plan for their needs,” Villalobos said.

About 18.8% of Austin’s population are foreign-born residents. Most immigrants are from Latin America, but the number of immigrants coming from Asia continues to rise and now makes up about a third of foreign-born residents in the city. Immigrants from Africa doubled over the last decade and now make up 4% of the immigrant population.

The researchers analyzed data from the New American Economy, a research and advocacy group that measures local policies and socioeconomic outcomes to assess immigrant integration. Out of the 100 largest cities in the U.S., Austin ranked 43 for immigrant integration.

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest challenges immigrants face in Austin is finding affordable housing. This is a pressing issue for many Austinites, but the problem is particularly acute for immigrant communities. According to the report, foreign-born residents experience rent burden — the financial pressures a person faces whenever they pay more than 30% of their income in housing costs — at a rate 4.8% higher than American-born ones.

Austin also scored low when it came to job opportunities, which researchers say “sounds an alarm for the city,” given Austin’s general record for economic growth and prosperity.

Additionally, census tracts with high concentrations of immigrants are some of the areas most vulnerable to development and displacement, the researchers found. They also found that areas with denser immigrant populations are also areas most vulnerable to disasters, like a pandemic.

Austin has a long history of segregation, and its effects can still be seen today. West Austin is home to wealthier and whiter communities, while many lower-income Black and Hispanic neighborhoods are in East Austin. The researchers mapped resources and found that most affordable housing units, hospitals, fire stations, public libraries and child care facilities are located in Central Austin, favoring the west.

“You could see that long history of neglect of the other half of the city evident in our mapping phase,” Wasem said. “But immigrants don't always live in those parts of town now.”

Immigrants are pushing some boundaries, the researchers note. They analyzed census tract data and found the densest area of foreign-born residents is around the intersection of North Lamar and Rundberg Lane in North Austin, west of Interstate 35. And there are a few other pockets in West Austin where 35% to 49% of residents are foreign-born.

Still, most immigrants live in East and South Austin. The study found Asian immigrants overwhelmingly live in West Austin, while Latin American immigrants are mostly living in East and South Austin.

Austin also has a low naturalization rate compared to cities with similar socioeconomic and demographic trends. Naturalization is the process in which people acquire citizenship. Austin’s naturalization rate is 68.5%. All but one of its 16 peer cities — Irving, just northwest of Dallas — have a higher rate.

The report notes that naturalization may not be every immigrant’s end goal. But it does bring about economic benefits. Naturalized people are more financially secure, civically engaged and earn 50% to 70% more than people who aren't citizens, the researchers say.

Wasem says measuring the naturalization rate can help assess how inclusive a region is toward immigrants.

“As an immigrant-receiving nation, when we admit foreign nationals, it’s with an eye that they become fully engaged as citizens,” Wasem said. “When you are in a community where that is not happening, I consider that … a warning signal that we’re not being inclusive enough.”

The researchers outline several recommendations for the city to help it be more inclusive to immigrants. They suggest the city establish an immigrant affairs office, provide more English language and civics education resources, develop and preserve affordable housing, keep supporting workforce development programs and explore policy options to combat low wages. They also encourage establishing “community resilience hubs” that can provide specialized services and resources to communities, something the city has already begun looking into after February’s winter storm and blackouts.

The researchers note that implementing such policies yields benefits for everyone, not just immigrants.

“Trying to improve wages helps everybody,” Wasem said. “Having robust courses available for people in entrepreneurial services … those kinds of things help everybody.”

The next step is for the recommendations to be presented to the Austin City Council for consideration.

Villalobos says in doing this work, it’s important to recognize not every immigrant has the same experience.

“Their experience is impacted by their country of origin, the way that they arrived to the U.S. and to Austin, their level of previous education, their language proficiency in English,” Villalobos said. “I think that we really need to have a nuanced understanding and approach when it comes to serving our immigrant communities.”

Got a tip? Email Marisa Charpentier at Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.

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Marisa Charpentier is KUT's assistant digital editor. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.
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