WASHINGTON – By 5 p.m. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, only one customer had stopped into Joseph Pontes’ custom tailor shop in Bethesda.
“We’re trying to keep our head above water,” said Pontes, 58, who moved to the United States from southern Portugal in the late 1960s.
Pontes is one of more than 650,000 working-age foreign-born residents of Maryland, where the foreign-born population has the second-highest median income of all states’ immigrant populations, even considering the recession, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released last week.
The data suggests the Maryland immigrant population has skills and education that mitigates competition between immigrants and native workers, said Michael Fix, senior vice president and director of studies at the Migration Policy Institute. Fix is also a member of the Maryland Council for New Americans, a panel created by Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2008 to aid immigrant integration in the state.
Pontes’ father opened the tailor shop more than 35 years ago, quickly doubled the store’s size and worked there until he died in 2005. Although Pontes, who lives in Silver Spring, worked several trades — carpentry, landscaping and printing among them — he fully took over the store’s operation after his father’s death.
Tailoring takes practice, training and — most of all — patience, Pontes said.
“A lot of people don’t want to do this,” Pontes said, fiddling with the rectangular magnifying glass he uses to inspect stitches. “It’s a very demanding job.”
A very demanding job with decreasing financial return. In recent years, Pontes said, his annual income is “much below” $50,000, and he has been forced to dip into savings.
“It’s a business that takes a lot of patience,” Pontes said. “And I’m running out.”
The estimated median income for Maryland’s foreign-born residents is $30,167. The District of Columbia’s immigrant population barely holds the top spot — when the Census Bureau’s margin of error is taken into account — with an estimated median income of $32,271.
“The heavy concentration of highly-educated immigrants around Washington probably pulls the median up,” said Harry J. Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University who has studied job competition between foreign-born and native workers.
About 16 percent of Maryland’s labor force is immigrants — about the same as the national average — according to a Census Bureau report released in December that uses data from 2007.
Holzer does not believe that immigrant workers are substantially affecting non-immigrant citizens’ employment prospects nationally.
“Even the most negative estimates of the impacts of less-skilled immigrants on U.S. workers in similar jobs suggests that in the long run, immigration accounts for only a small share of the deterioration observed in less-skilled Americans’ employment and earnings,” Holzer said.
According to Holzer, the competition from immigrants for jobs is even less significant in Maryland because so many of the state’s foreign-born residents are highly-educated.
“It’s hard to believe they’re squeezing out citizens” for jobs, Holzer said.
Maryland’s foreign-born population has a median income that is approximately $2,000 more than the median income of residents born in the state, according to the Census Bureau estimates.
The data does not allow a comparison between foreign-born workers and those born in all of the United States — only among those born in Maryland, or the other states.
Nor does it distinguish immigrants by citizenship status or whether they entered the country legally or illegally, a key distinction for at least one Maryland legislator.
Delegate Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County, said last week he plans to introduce 16 bills to curb illegal immigration in Maryland. The bills are an effort to reduce competition from illegal immigrants for low-skill jobs, McDonough said.
Legal immigrants are not the target, McDonough said.
“I do not have a problem, personally, when immigrants have a lawful presence,” McDonough said. “Many are professionals or business people.”
But McDonough said he doesn’t believe that the recently-released Census Bureau estimates accurately represent undocumented workers’ influence on the statistics.
“We have no concept whatsoever” of undocumented, low-skilled workers’ weight on median income statistics, McDonough said. “Those numbers are not acceptable and would not be valid in the science or engineering world.”
The estimates are produced from data collected over three years, from 2007 to 2009, as part of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which replaced the long-form version of the census.
The American Community Survey is sent annually to a random sample of 3 million U.S. households and is designed to encompass all aspects of the U.S. population, including undocumented immigrants, said Robert Bernstein, a public affairs specialist with the Census Bureau.
John Logan, a sociology professor at Brown University and director of the American Communities Project, which analyzes census data, agrees that the median income data most likely captures the Maryland population of illegal immigrants.
“I think that there is a relatively small fraction of undocumented people who are afraid to be caught in the net of that survey,” Logan said. However, he said, there is no way of knowing for certain the level of bias the survey has regarding undocumented residents.
The survey also cannot capture the opportunities immigrants have known in Maryland, such as Pontes’ father’s tailor shop.
Pontes has not allowed the financial difficulties to cloud the memory of his father’s success as an immigrant business owner in Maryland.
As far as he knows, Pontes said, his father had no regrets.