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Report: Immigrants Contribute to Kentucky's Economy, but Face Barriers

PHOTO: A new report finds that immigrants in Kentucky are a diverse group that contributes greatly to the state's economy. It says immigration reform could mean even greater economic benefits. Photo credit: Deborah C. Smith.
PHOTO: A new report finds that immigrants in Kentucky are a diverse group that contributes greatly to the state's economy. It says immigration reform could mean even greater economic benefits. Photo credit: Deborah C. Smith.
July 3, 2014

BEREA, Ky. – Prompted by a lack of action in the U.S. House, President Obama said earlier this week he may act on his own to reform the nation's immigration system.

In Kentucky, a policy research organization has released a new snapshot of the state's immigrant population. The profile from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy finds that immigrants in the state are diverse and contribute robustly to the economy.

According to report author Anna Baumann, the take-away message is that immigrants are not a separate group from U.S.-born citizens.

"They are our neighbors – they're small business owners, taxpayers, consumers," Baumann says. "They're teachers and doctors, they're our kids' friends at school, they're our colleagues. They're fully integrated into our communities and our economy."

Immigrants make up about three percent of Kentucky's population. As of 2012, there were an estimated 134,000 immigrants in the state, a small number compared to other states – but since 2000, a population that has been growing faster than in all but six states.

The report found an ethnically and racially diverse population that is well-represented across the state's workforce and occupations. More than one-third of the immigrants (35 percent) are naturalized citizens, and many others are legal residents.

Baumann, a policy associate with the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, says estimates of the number of immigrants who are in Kentucky without authorization range from 50,000 to 80,000. She says one of the main economic barriers immigrants face is being paid even less than American-born citizens in low-wage jobs.

"Giving them legal status would give them access to a fuller range of jobs; it would give them better bargaining power in the workplace," she explains. "Those things would increase their earnings and would mean they could spend more to meet their family's needs. It would mean more tax revenue for our state. It would mean they'd spend more in our local economies, which would be good for the state and good for them."

The report says about one in three Kentucky immigrants is Hispanic, yet the majority of Hispanic Kentuckians (60 percent) were born in the United States. The top five most common countries of immigrants' origin are Mexico, Germany, India, Cuba and Japan.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY