Immigrants Burden And Blessing For States

Immigrants Burden And Blessing For States

By Tim Henderson, (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As a teenage refugee from war-torn Bosnia 20 years ago, Ned Halilovic asked for a small, safe place to live and ended up in West Fargo, N.D.

Few in town spoke his language, and Halilovic spoke no English. He started high school within a week of arriving and so he needed to learn the language of his new country. He got his diploma in 18 months.

“I set out to learn 20 words a day,” said Halilovic, now 37 and a college graduate. “That was my goal, starting with ‘table,’ ‘chair.’ When you are forced to do it, it goes much smoother, much faster.”

Young immigrants remain a constant in North Dakota and South Dakota. Immigrants there are the youngest in the country, with a median age of 34. And more than in any other state, they are new arrivals, having come to the U.S. after 2010. They often speak little English, like Halilovic.

And the states are investing millions of dollars in helping these new immigrants learn English and acclimate to American culture, hopeful that it will pay off with economic activity. Halilovic’s cleaning business in West Fargo employs 72 people, many of whom are young immigrants.

Immigrants fill many of the country’s labor gaps: from low-skilled work in agriculture to high-skilled work in science and technology. An Economic Policy Institute study last year calculated that while only 13 percent of U.S. residents were immigrants, they produced nearly 15 percent of U.S. economic output.

Having an immigrant population that is younger often means the newcomers are contributing to a state’s workforce, which can increase the tax base. But it also can mean young families that have children. And that can burden public schools, which are obligated to teach students who don’t speak English.

Having an immigrant population that skews older can mean a state has a greater percentage of immigrants who have aged out of the workforce and may need help with health care, housing and retirement — though not always.

Hawaii and Florida have the oldest immigrant populations in the nation, with median ages in the late forties. They have been receiving immigrants — in Hawaii, many are from Asia, and in Florida, many are from Cuba — in large numbers for more than 50 years. And the immigrants have settled in enclaves where many speak the same language or share the same culture.

Immigrants in Hawaii and Florida also tend to be more affluent than immigrants in other states. Eugene Tian, an economic analyst at Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, said immigrants are generally as well off as Hawaiians who are born there.

In Florida, older immigrants have been a boon to the housing industry, which has struggled since the mortgage crisis hit in 2007.

“Those folks have been doing a lot of homebuying and in a lot of cases they’re paying cash,” said Christopher McCarty, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida. Affluent immigrants, he said, see Florida as a good investment and a good destination with Hispanic-friendly communities.

In contrast, many of the immigrants arriving in the Dakotas are like Halilovic. They don’t speak English and have no long-standing immigrant community to move into. As a result, they often need to learn English, assimilate to American culture and enter the economy more quickly.

“Immigrants who find relatively few of their compatriots living in the United States typically have a stronger incentive to make the U.S.-specific investments that will allow a wider range of social and economic exchanges,” George Borjas, an immigration economist at Harvard University who was born in Havana, wrote in a study last year.

Having children, and parents, who don’t speak English can tax school systems.

Schools in Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s largest city, spend $5.3 million annually on staff and programs for children who don’t speak English or are only learning it. There are too many languages for a bilingual approach, said the schools’ spokeswoman, DeeAnn Konrad.

The schools are often unable to find interpreters for children or parents, so teachers and support staff must fall back on nonverbal communication, such as pointing.

“With more than 70 different languages represented in the district, we cannot translate communications for all families,” said Ann Smith, who supervises programs for immigrant children there. “Our school-home liaisons make personal contact to explain test scores and report cards. Our liaisons are not necessarily bilingual but have incredible skills communicating without words.”

Cultural differences can stand in the way of learning, too. Some of the newest immigrants to Sioux Falls, like the Kunama people from Ethiopia and Eritrea, need some coaxing to see the value of reading and writing.

“Our Kunama neighbors place a high value on face-to-face, spoken communication,” Smith said. Other newcomers include children from Nepal, Bhutan and Burundi, including some Hindus who do not eat beef, putting new strains on cafeterias.

“Food, in general, can be a challenge when you integrate people who are used to a rice- and vegetable-based diet into the Midwest, where all meals center around beef and potatoes,” Smith said.

Although many in the decades-old immigrant waves, like those in Hawaii and Florida, are financially secure, many in the newer waves, from rural Mexico and Central America, aren’t. And some scholars who study the issue foresee a financially troubled, older immigrant population that the country will have to deal with.

Immigrants who arrive later in life are more likely to be financially troubled than those who arrive at an earlier age, according to a 2013 study by the Population Research Bureau. And their number is growing: 6 million immigrants age 65 or older lived in the U.S. last year, more than double the 2.7 million in 1990.

Older immigrants also are more likely to be poorer than Americans who were born here and are unlikely to catch up to them financially, the study found, which means they aren’t as likely to be able to retire. They will have to work longer in life to make ends meet, and they won’t be eligible for public assistance, such as Medicaid, unless they become citizens.

©2015 Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Immigrant rights march for amnesty in downtown Los Angeles, California on May Day, 2006. Jonathan McIntosh via Wikimedia Commons


Rising Tide Of State Buyouts Fights Flooding

Rising Tide Of State Buyouts Fights Flooding

By Tim Henderson, (TNS)

WASHINGTON — For decades, state and local governments across the country have been buying private homes near flood-prone rivers and tearing them down to save millions on flood insurance.

But as coastal communities are confronted with increasingly costly storms, they, too, are turning to buyouts, to create natural buffers along the coast and help protect nearby neighborhoods and businesses from flooding. And while some efforts have met resistance — some don’t want to leave their beachfront homes, some fear a declining property tax base — others are showing results.

After suffering heavy losses from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York pledged to spend $400 million in federal and state money on buyouts to create more buffers on the coasts of Long Island and Staten Island. The state has made 525 offers, worth $64 million, out of 750 to 1,000 it had anticipated in 2013.

New Jersey has a similar goal. After Sandy, the state used the same mix of federal grants and state funds to put $300 million into its existing Blue Acres program, and said it expected to clear 1,300 homes from flood-prone areas near rivers and the coastline.

The Garden State has made 700 offers and closed on more than 400 properties.

Although many coastal homeowners were willing to sell, the state found it was unable to buy enough houses — despite offering pre-storm prices for storm-damaged houses — in clusters that would allow for buffers of open space.

Some property owners simply didn’t want to leave, said Bob Considine, of the state’s environmental agency.

That’s not unusual, said Chad Berginnis, director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Beachfront houses serve as valuable rental property that owners don’t want to part with.

The post-Sandy programs in New York and New Jersey, which rely on allotments from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), are the largest buyout investments by single states.

But similar programs exist in nearly every state, and are run by other federal agencies with state and local partnerships. A program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent almost $900 million since 1998 on buyouts in 48 states. State and local governments organize the buyouts, and typically provide 25 percent of the funds, with the rest coming from the federal government. In some cases, the federal share can be higher.

In almost two decades, about $108 million went to North Carolina, according to a Stateline analysis of FEMA data. Seven other states received more than $30 million each: Georgia, Iowa, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia.

About 7 percent has gone to coastal buyouts, with Florida and Mississippi leading the way.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also does buyouts, usually against inland farm flooding. Since 1996, USDA has purchased 180,000 acres for emergency flood control in 36 states. After Sandy, USDA bought out another 671 acres as part of a $99 million emergency watershed protection program in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.

Several factors add urgency to state efforts to combat flooding.

The National Flood Insurance Program, which insures 5 million properties nationwide, likely will be unable to repay the $23 billion it owes the U.S. Treasury Department because of heavy losses after Sandy and Hurricane Katrina.

At the same time, coastal communities face a worsening threat. A September study from Columbia University’s Earth Institute concluded that a combination of rising sea levels and larger storms likely will magnify East Coast flooding hundreds of times in the coming decades.

Solutions like beach replacement and seawalls have been losing their appeal as communities find even routine storms will overrun man-made obstacles and wash away millions of dollars in replacement sand, said Berginnis, of the floodplain managers group.

Severe flooding of the Mississippi River in 1993, from Minnesota to Missouri, boosted interest in buyouts and sparked legislation that increased the federal share of buyouts from the previous maximum of 50 percent. Some 12,000 properties were bought out and entire communities were shifted away from the river.

But buyouts in Louisiana found less support after Katrina, and the state ended up spending more on elevating coastal houses than on removing them to create buffers.

Today, buyout programs are often large and statewide, but they can be small and local.

In Lusby, Md., along the Chesapeake Bay, for instance, coastal cliffs had eroded so badly by 2013 that Susan Davis’ home was in danger of collapse and a neighbor’s patio was dangling over the bay. County officials told her that they could raise the funds to match the federal dollars needed to buy her home because a mild winter had left a surplus in the storm budget. And they warned she might not get another chance.

Davis said she and her husband wished they could have stayed and fought the cliff erosion by adding rocks at sea level. But they took the buyout and moved to a house on a creek a few miles inland.

“The situation was horrible,” Davis said. “There’s no way we could win. The house would have been worthless because there’s no way to sell it.”

Buyout programs are most cost-effective, and get most local support, when governments develop new housing in safer areas that keeps bought-out residents nearby and minimizes tax losses, according to a study by Columbia Law School.

Buyout programs along the nation’s coasts are still small and face several obstacles, including high property prices.

Even North Carolina — which is often battered by Atlantic storms and, at $108 million since 1998, has spent more in FEMA grants than any other state — rarely buys coastal property. The bulk of the buyout money has gone to purchase riverfront homes, said Chris Crew, the state hazard mitigation officer. Less than 5 percent has been used to purchase property along the state’s 300 miles of coast.

Many beachfront properties are rentals owned by investors, and the state’s priority is to help with owner-occupied housing. Such houses also typically cost $600,000 or more, and FEMA is unlikely to agree to buy any home above $276,000, Crew said.

“There’s not a $276,000 house on the ocean in Kill Devil Hills,” he said, referring to a popular vacation spot in the state.

Because homeowners often depend on renting out their beachfront properties, coastal houses in the state tend to be raised above typical flood levels.

Generally, Crew said, it’s been more popular — and more cost-effective for North Carolina — to buy out houses along the state’s inland network of creeks and canals that sit just a few feet above sea level.

New York’s post-Sandy buyout program got a boost when an entire neighborhood, Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, organized and negotiated buyouts last year. Residents found that even ordinary rainstorms were flooding the area, said Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Nearby neighborhoods joined in, and Staten Island now accounts for 338 of the 525 offers made by the state.

New York officials offered several reasons for their success, including a focus on buyouts on Staten Island’s eastern shore and Long Island’s Suffolk County, where houses are relatively affordable. The HUD program prohibits home purchases above $700,000, and vacation rentals are usually too profitable to sell.

To combat complaints that the buyouts were hurting property tax rolls, New York added a separate program that uses federal funds to buy storm-damaged homes, tear them down, and resell the land for rebuilding with an agreement that the new homes be storm-resistant. At least 275 such offers have been made.

©2015 Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Whitney Pond and her sisters check out the flooding along Orange Street in Georgetown, South Carolina October 4, 2015. REUTERS/Randall Hill

Schools Look To Puerto Rico In Search Of Bilingual Teachers

Schools Look To Puerto Rico In Search Of Bilingual Teachers

By Tim Henderson, (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Even with 16 years of teaching experience and two master’s degrees, Nathalia Moreno had a hard time finding a new job in the financially stressed schools where she lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Her prospects brightened when she began considering working in schools on the mainland, where bilingual teachers are in high demand. She got an offer from Florida, but took a job teaching physical education in Las Vegas where recruiters were more persistent.

It’s worth being persistent to hire a good teacher, especially one like Moreno who speaks English and Spanish, said Staci Vesneske, chief human resources officer for Las Vegas’ Clark County school system.

“It’s not uncommon for our recruiters to follow up two or three times to say, ‘Hey, we really want you to finish your application,'” Vesneske said.

Growing demand for bilingual teachers, fed by increasing numbers of Spanish-speaking public school students, is forcing local school districts to get creative in their recruiting. A major target for their efforts is Puerto Rico: the teachers, already U.S. citizens, don’t require a visa if they decide to leave the island and its struggling economy to go work on the mainland.

Oklahoma City Public Schools, for instance, started the school year in August with more than a dozen new teachers from Puerto Rico, including Iriana Sanchez, a kindergarten teacher who left because “it’s hard to get a job there, and here I feel very welcome.”

Houston-area schools are organizing recruiting conferences locally and in San Juan. The Dallas Independent School District, which already recruits in Puerto Rico, is this year looking to Mexico and Spain for candidates, while starting a training program for local bilingual professionals to become teachers.

“As bilingual programs in Dallas and across the state continue to grow, the need for bilingual teachers increases exponentially each year,” said Jordan Carlton, who heads a recruiting team for the district.

A smaller share of U.S. college students is getting education degrees. Relatively low pay and declining job benefits can make the profession look less attractive. State certification of teachers varies widely, and states don’t always recognize each other’s teacher certifications.

A 2013 study by the Council of the Great City Schools found that about half of large city school districts either have a shortage of teachers for so-called English Language Learners, or ELLs, or anticipate one in the next five years.

“This makes recruitment a challenge,” Carlton said, “and requires us to look at all possible alternatives for gaining the educators that we need.”

Students who speak another language and need help learning English are one of the fastest growing populations in public schools. Using the latest data available, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the number of ELLs rose 6 percent between 2008 and 2013.

ELLs make up 9 percent of all public school students, the center found. Their share of the student population ranges from less than 1 percent in West Virginia to 23 percent in California.

About 71 percent of them speak Spanish, according to information compiled this year by the Migration Policy Institute, although in some states more students speak another foreign language.

In Montana, for instance, German-speaking students outnumber Spanish-speakers. In Vermont, it’s Nepali. In Maine, it’s Somali. Lincoln, Nebraska, budgeted $1.2 million for more bilingual teachers and support staff this year after 866 students needing services arrived, mostly from Iraq and Mexico.

Some states have responded to the growing numbers of ELLs in their classrooms by requiring bilingual education. Bilingual education advocates say that learning subjects partially in a student’s native language, while also studying English, increases comprehension and brings up standardized test scores, including those required by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated that annual testing be conducted in English.

Even in some English-only education states, such as Arizona and Massachusetts, some bilingual teachers may be hired because they’re considered well qualified to teach ELLs under the English immersion programs required there. In Arizona, bilingual classes are possible if parents sign waivers.

“There’s growing awareness in the states that fluency in the original language is helpful for learning English,” said Micah Ann Wixom, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. “The states are very much aware that the number of these students is growing and they’re actively seeking out ways to help them.”

Connecticut, Illinois, Texas, New York and New Jersey are under special pressure to find bilingual teachers because they mandate bilingual education plans in schools where there are concentrations of a single foreign language, said Julie Sugarman, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

This year Connecticut’s General Assembly formed a working group on expanding bilingual education because of a 50 percent increase in demand for services in a decade, combined with some of the nation’s highest gaps in achievement among ELLs in subjects such as eighth-grade math and reading.

To address teacher shortages, the group recommended streamlining the process for certifying teachers for classrooms, which varies across the states. It also recommended allowing teachers with credentials from other states to teach in Connecticut schools.

It’s a nationwide issue, according to the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program. “Different state-by-state certification processes and requirements limit teachers’ mobility, and stop the flow of bilingual teachers from areas with little demand for them to areas with great need for them,” a post on the center’s Ed Central blog concluded.

The bilingual teacher shortage comes against the backdrop of a general teacher shortage in many states. A federal report shows teacher shortages in many areas for math and science, as well as special education.

Vesneske of Clark County, Nev., said many potential teachers were frightened away from entering the profession by layoffs after the recession.

“It always seemed like maybe not a high-paying job, but a dependable job, and then with the layoffs it didn’t seem too dependable anymore,” said Vesneske, whose district has hired 1,800 teachers this year and still needs more.

In Wisconsin, State Superintendent Tony Evers said in his State of Education address last month that the number of teacher licenses had dropped 12 percent in two years, and 2,000 fewer students were preparing to be teachers than there were three years ago.

“Good people are leaving the profession and young people are choosing not to become teachers,” he said.

In Minnesota, teacher licenses are down 7 percent in the last five years according to a state report. In Illinois, teacher licenses have grown by 2 percent a year since 2006, but the state still can’t fill some jobs, including 76 bilingual education jobs, according to a state report issued in March.

Financial troubles in Puerto Rico have made the island territory a more tempting spot for recruiting. Moreno, the PE teacher in Las Vegas, said she’d been looking for a better teaching job for years.

“Nobody wanted to pay me. They kept saying I was overqualified,” Moreno said. “In Puerto Rico, it’s really hard. They’re closing a lot of schools. I was really struggling financially.”

Almost 16,000 working teachers moved to the states from Puerto Rico and Latin America between 2008 and 2013, with about two-thirds of them going to Arizona, California, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Texas, according to a Stateline analysis of American Community Survey data from the Minnesota Population Center.

Recruiters are drawn to Puerto Rico for more than teachers, however. Other government agencies and the private sector also need bilingual staff, particularly social workers.

“There is definitely a great need for Latino social workers who are bilingual Spanish speakers,” said Migdalia Reyes, a professor of social work at San Jose State University. “Many social work schools on the East Coast have historically recruited students from Puerto Rico to their programs.”

Photo: Despite all the Spanish speakers in the U.S., some districts are going to Puerto Rico — as well as other Caribbean areas — to recruit bilingual teachers. Emily/Flickr

New Generation Of African Americans Are Moving Less

New Generation Of African Americans Are Moving Less

By Tim Henderson, (TNS)

STOCKBRIDGE, Georgia — Tavaras Powell moved hundreds of miles south to an Atlanta suburb in search of a job after getting his college degree 15 years ago. Here, he met and married Toye, who has lived in the area all her life.

The Powells — Tavaras, 37, and Toye, 35 — embody some of the latest trends in migration by African Americans: Some are moving for economic opportunity, but many are extremely loyal to childhood homes.

“I moved from home and she’s still home. It’s an interesting mix,” said Tavaras Powell.

A new study shows that today’s black families are less mobile than whites or previous generations of black families, and are tending to stay in the same state and even the same county where they were raised. Some scholars see this as evidence that blacks have been left out of recent regional booms in tech and energy, but it also may be that they simply are making shorter moves from cities to nearby suburbs.

The study, by sociologist Patrick Sharkey of New York University in the journal Demography, found a sharp difference between the current generation, born between 1952 and 1982, and earlier waves of African Americans who moved from the rural South to Northern cities in the last century, which historians call the Great Migration.

“This new geographic immobility is the most pronounced change in black Americans’ migration patterns after the Great Migration,” Sharkey wrote. “In the most recent generation, black Americans have remained in place to a degree that is unique relative to the previous generation and relative to whites of the same generation.”


Sharkey found that nationwide, 86 percent of African Americans born between 1952 and 1982 had not moved from the area where they grew up. For his study, he used a series of surveys that followed families from 1968 to 2007 that were conducted by the Panel Study of Income Dynamics at the University of Michigan.

A Stateline analysis shows that blacks are more likely than whites, Hispanics, or Asians in Southern states to have been born in the state where they live — ranging from 89 percent in Louisiana to 63 percent in Virginia and Georgia. The only exception is West Virginia, where white residents are more likely to have been born in the state than blacks.

The same also is true in California, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Missouri, and Oklahoma.

Some scholars, such as Sandra Susan Smith, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, worry that the findings imply that African Americans are not finding a place in job booms in construction, technology, and energy industries in other parts of the country.

Many cities and states have tried to create more jobs requiring highly skilled workers, including offering tax incentives to companies that provide them. But many African Americans don’t have the education and training for such jobs.

“The economic expansions of the last 25 years or so that might have inspired families to move have been concentrated in industries and occupations that have not been traditional niches for blacks,” said Smith, who is black. “If you’re black, these economic developments would not likely have caused you to pick up and leave.”

Smith also suggested that a lack of long-distance movement may mask a recent trend of black families moving out of inner cities and into the suburbs. That would help account for Sharkey’s findings that many blacks remain in the same states and even counties where they were born.

“This suggests that there is mobility, but much more contained than that studied by Sharkey,” Smith said. “Such a movement would likely reflect two phenomena: The increased economic cost of living in big cities, which pushes those without great means to the suburbs, where more than half of the poor now currently live, and the continued promise that the suburbs hold for many in the middle class — less crime, more space, and parks.”

Despite finding less migration, Sharkey did find a reversal of direction compared to previous generations, with today’s blacks tending to move to the South rather than to the North.

Sharkey said his findings don’t conflict with recent accounts of a new Great Migration by blacks headed to the South, as William Frey of The Brookings Institution called it in 2004 in looking at movement in the years 1965 to 2000.

Frey noted at the time that the South had gained black migrants in the 1990s, reversing a 35-year trend, with metro areas like Atlanta leading the way. There were “brain gains” in the South, Frey wrote, as Georgia, Texas and Maryland attracted the most black college graduates from 1995 to 2000.

“I don’t think it necessarily conflicts,” Sharkey said of his findings compared to Frey’s. “I do think the emphasis is different, as he hasn’t focused on the drop in long-range mobility.”

Frey acknowledged that he did not address generational differences as Sharkey did. “It may be the case that later generations of Northern blacks are not moving across counties or anywhere as much as earlier black generations,” Frey said.


When black Americans do move, it’s often for economic opportunity. That was the case for Tavaras Powell, who moved more than 300 miles south to seek his fortune in the Atlanta area after getting his college degree in 2000 from Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina.

“Atlanta was like the candy land. Everybody wanted to go,” said Powell, an environmentalist who monitors water quality in a neighboring county.

His wife Toye, meanwhile, said she has had no desire to move because she feels more comfortable near her hometown than in any other place she has visited. She is an elementary school teacher.

“You look at the news and you see African Americans in not the best light, but in Atlanta you see lots of positive examples,” she said. “It’s nice to see, in Atlanta, African Americans who are successful and doing a great job; you see doctors and lawyers. You get used to that and you just get kind of comfortable.”

Tavaras Powell has a family history that conforms with the Great Migration and return to the South. Several relatives in his grandparents’ generation moved from North Carolina to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he often visited during the summer as a child. But in the 1990s they returned to their childhood home in North Carolina.

“They retired and went right back to the same spot, all in arm’s reach of each other. They had a totally different lifestyle and they came right back,” Tavaras Powell said.

Economics as well as a feeling of home also come into play. Carlotta Harrell, a management consultant in Henry County, who is black, happily remains here where her grandparents settled.

“I’ve done a lot of traveling, and to be perfectly honest there is no other place I would rather live,” said Harrell.

“The house that I live in would probably cost $2 million up North,” she said. “I hate the weather. And to me, the people up north are just not as friendly. There is such a thing as Southern hospitality.”


African Americans aren’t the only ones who feel the lure of the South. Sharkey’s study showed that whites who had left the South were even more likely to return there — 14 percent of whites as opposed to nine percent of blacks, though blacks were more likely to return to the same county.

“It is my contention that all Southerners eventually go home,” said Allison Glock, a writer who is white and who has blogged about the difficulty of staying away from “the bleached-linen, biscuit-baking, horsefly-biting landscape of my childhood.”

For her, the lure was more cultural than economic, she said, although she doesn’t mind mentioning her low mortgage payments to New York City friends.

“I missed the easy sociability of the place,” she said. “When we get off the plane in Atlanta, I am always so happy to hear people chatting and joking with each other…Nobody talks to each other in Denver or Los Angeles. You strike up a conversation with a stranger in L.A. and it’s like you’ve asked them to take off their pants.”

Photo: Tim Henderson via Stateline

Immigration Changes Wouldn’t Solve Health Issues

Immigration Changes Wouldn’t Solve Health Issues

By Tim Henderson, (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s controversial executive action on immigration has highlighted a thorny health care issue for states: Potentially millions of immigrants could legally stay here and work, but still lack health insurance.

Unauthorized immigrants have limited access to health care coverage, and the president’s action likely will make them ineligible for most Medicaid services and bar them from purchasing insurance on the federal and state exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Some states have sought to solve the problem for low-income immigrants with separate state-funded insurance programs. Those that have not are wrestling with the consequences of a population that is going without routine care, which can drive up costs when preventable illnesses become serious health emergencies.

Treating kidney disease as an emergency condition, for instance, costs almost five times what it would with routine care denied to unauthorized immigrants, according to a Baylor College of Medicine study published by the Texas Medical Association last year.

Unauthorized immigrants without health insurance present other problems for states. In Maryland, for instance, state attorneys face cases of criminally insane defendants who are no longer deportable but can’t get the follow-up care required for release into the community.

The issues arise from what the Annenberg Public Policy Center calls “a curious intersection” between the ACA and the president’s executive action that defers deportation for many unauthorized immigrants: The action allows them to live and work here legally, but not to get insurance under the ACA.

The president’s action, Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA), defers deportation for immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and it expands the 2012 program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which deferred deportation for immigrants who arrived unlawfully before they turned age 16.

The action is on hold because of an injunction issued Feb. 16 by a federal judge in Texas after 26 states filed suit. The Obama administration is appealing. But even if the president wins, the health care issue likely remains for the immigrants who are allowed to stay and work.

“People granted DAPA or expanded DACA will not be eligible for federal health coverage programs,” the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute recently wrote on its policy blog.

Only states with state-funded alternatives, such as California’s Medi-Cal, are considering plans to accept expanded DACA/DAPA recipients. California, along with Washington, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and the District of Columbia use state or local funds to offer some health insurance to DACA recipients, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

California and New York have been the most successful in bridging the gap, according to a Migration Policy Institute study of unauthorized immigrants. In both states, unauthorized immigrants are more likely to have health insurance than the general population.

Illinois was planning a state-funded insurance exchange open to all, including unauthorized immigrants, under Democratic Governor Pat Quinn. Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who replaced Quinn in January, has not said whether he will continue the plan.

Many immigration and health care advocates hope the situation will change nationally, and DACA and DAPA recipients will be allowed to purchase insurance on all exchanges and be covered by employer plans under the ACA. Dozens of state and local advocacy groups have asked the federal government to open up more health insurance options for DACA and future DAPA recipients.

“There is some hope that the work authorization will allow people granted DACA or DAPA to obtain jobs that provide health insurance benefits,” Georgetown’s Health Policy Institute said. “However, many people in low-wage, part-time and seasonal jobs will continue to be left out of employer-sponsored health insurance or unable to afford their required share of the premiums.”

More than half of unauthorized immigrant adults have no health insurance, and 1 in 5 lives in poverty, according to Pew Hispanic Center estimates (Pew also funds Stateline). That creates problems, even in criminal cases.

At a recent meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington, D.C., Assistant Attorney General Rhonda Edwards of Maryland said she’s finding it increasingly hard to deal with mental hospital inmates who are unauthorized immigrants because of their lack of insurance.

Without insurance, it’s difficult or impossible to release patients from mental hospitals and free the beds for other patients, she said.

“Treatment for mental illness is afforded to illegal mentally ill immigrants who are court-committed to state-run facilities at governmental expense,” Edwards wrote in a paper on the subject. “However, once these individuals are released, no governmental funding is allocated for their care and treatment for mental illness symptoms that may cause them to be a danger in the community.”

Unauthorized immigrants without insurance are entitled to emergency care, including childbirth care, through a federal-state Medicaid safety net fund costing $2 billion a year, according to a 2013 report from Kaiser Health News. Routine care is often left to safety net clinics that also get federal funding, but politically sensitive care like birth control can be inconsistent from state to state.

A recent University of Kentucky study found that lack of insurance drives many immigrant women to cross the border into Mexico to get oral contraceptives.

“If you’re an undocumented woman, you’re really reliant on these clinics,” said Kinsey Hasstedt, a public policy associate for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health advocacy group.

The issue of health insurance came up in arguments before U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen, who issued the injunction that blocked DAPA and the expansion of DACA.

States argued that DACA and DAPA recipients would have an unfair advantage over citizens in competing for jobs because employers wouldn’t have to buy insurance for them.

Expanding deferred deportation could “create a discriminatory employment environment that will encourage employers to hire DAPA beneficiaries instead of those with lawful permanent status in the United States,” Hanen wrote in a memorandum opinion in issuing the injunction. “If an employer hires a DACA beneficiary, it does not have to offer that individual healthcare nor does it incur a monetary penalty for the failure to do so.”

But employment experts said such a tactic is not as easy as it sounds. Any employer of more than 50 people must provide health insurance for all employees unless every single one is exempt, said Ken Jacobs of the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center.

“There is a penalty that applies to employers that do not provide affordable coverage,” Jacobs said. “That rule applies to all workers.”

Angel Padilla, a health policy analyst at National Immigration Law Center, agreed. He pointed to a brief released in December by the Annenberg Public Policy Center debunking the idea.

“It would be extremely unlikely for DACA and DAPA grantees to allow an employer to skirt the employer mandate and there are a number of existing protections to keep this from happening,” he said.

States have always been free to make their own health care provisions for unauthorized and other immigrants, who are generally barred from government health benefits such as Medicaid for five years after they attain legal status.

Several states, such as Alaska and Massachusetts, provide state funding for selected unauthorized immigrants (such as children and pregnant women) for some services, according to a Pew report released last year. But other states, such as Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming, deny Medicaid even to some immigrants with green cards who have been legal for five years.

Many states are opposed to providing help to unauthorized immigrants on ethical and financial grounds. Foes say it’s wrong to reward illegal entry into the country, and that more demand on health care resources will strain budgets and harm the quality of care. Opinion polls often favor withholding health care subsidies from illegal immigrants, according to a review by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a group seeking to stop illegal immigration.

But without affordable health insurance, advocates say unauthorized immigrants will continue to have health issues.

“With a growing undocumented immigrant population in Texas, our state legislators must be aware of and address this problem before it evolves into a health care crisis,” researchers warned in last year’s Baylor College of Medicine study on health care for undocumented immigrants.

Photo: President Obama sits down with Telemundo MSNBC’s anchorman Jose Diaz-Balart, left, during a town hall meeting on immigration at Florida International University in Hialeah, Fla., on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. (Pool photo by Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS)

More Jurisdictions Defying Feds On Deporting Immigrants

More Jurisdictions Defying Feds On Deporting Immigrants

By Tim Henderson,

WASHINGTON — Carlos Rodriguez, a 27-year-old Dominican-born chef in New York City, thought he was safe from deportation because his wife and daughter are U.S. citizens and he had never been in trouble with the law.

Then he was arrested for trespassing in a friend’s apartment building last year, a charge that was later dropped. It was the beginning of an eight-month nightmare that started when immigration authorities took him into custody and worsened when they moved him to a detention center in New Jersey to await deportation. Because his wife is a citizen, Rodriguez qualified for a green card, but he didn’t know that until an advocacy group stepped in to help. Eventually he was freed from detention and allowed to remain in the country.

“I lost my job as a chef and my wife and daughter were about to lose the apartment because they depend on my job for the rent,” Rodriguez testified recently at a New York City Council meeting.
New York City decided in 2011 to limit or refuse cooperation with federal “detainers,” or requests from immigration authorities to hold someone for possible deportation. Almost 300 cities and counties plus the states of California, Colorado and Connecticut have done the same, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which tracks them.

A Stateline comparison of the center’s list with U.S. Census data shows that more than half of the nation’s 22 million noncitizens live in those jurisdictions, including such immigrant strongholds as New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. But other areas also with large noncitizen populations, including Harris County, Texas (which includes Houston), and Maricopa County, Ariz. (Phoenix), do cooperate, at least officially.

The detainers are notices from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requesting local police to hold a prisoner an extra two days for possible deportation, after the prisoner would ordinarily be released because the charges were dropped or bail was posted. In some cases, prisoners have been jailed longer — sometimes months — because bail was refused based on the detainer, or in some cases, prisoners opted not to post bail, hoping to postpone federal custody and deportation.

Federal immigration authorities began to use detainers in 1996. They became more common for more minor arrests when the Secure Communities deportation program, which became mandatory in 2012 after four years as a pilot program, required state and local law enforcement agencies to send fingerprints from every booking to immigration authorities for checks.

New York City was one of the first jurisdictions to question the detainers, said Peter Markowitz, director of the Immigration Justice Clinic in New York and co-author of a 2011 Berkeley Law School study of Secure Communities that became the basis for many arguments against detainers.

“It’s really gone from 0 to 60,” he said about the move to limit or refuse to cooperate. “A few years ago, nobody was doing it, then a few places like Santa Clara County, Calif., and New York City, and now there’s just an explosion.” Markowitz said state and local officials began to balk when they saw that many people were deported even though they had not committed serious crimes.

ICE says it deports about 133,000 people annually from the interior of the country, as opposed to deportations of those caught trying to cross the border, and that most of them have criminal histories. But criminal history can include strictly immigration-related cases like failing to show up in immigration court, or “recent border crossings,” according to ICE.

“A large percentage of these people have no criminal record,” said Markowitz. “Many of the people we represented were afraid of any kind of contact with authorities because of the close ties between New York City police and ICE.”

But many jurisdictions are still cooperating with the detainers, sometimes resulting in different outcomes for immigrants even in the same state. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, for example, has aggressively resisted detainers, saying she welcomes immigrants, but nearby Frederick County, Md., is one of the most cooperative jurisdictions.

“We all know there are people out there advocating that we not enforce any laws whatsoever,” said Frederick County Sheriff Charles “Chuck” Jenkins.

“If you’re arrested for any crime in my county, we put you in handcuffs and we ask you two simple questions: ‘What country were you born in?’ and ‘What country are you a citizen of?'” Jenkins said. “Everybody is treated the same.”

Frederick County is part of the 287(g) program, an enhanced partnership program with ICE that trains and uses local law enforcement to carry out some federal immigration laws, such as determining when a detainer is warranted. Since 2008, county officers have filed 1,311 immigration detainers, usually resulting in a transfer to federal authorities for possible deportation, although they don’t know how many actual deportations result.

At times, policies can clash within the same jurisdictions. Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Lincoln Chafee in July ordered state prisons and jails not to hold immigrant detainees for extended periods of time for possible transfer to ICE. This allowed one of them, Antonio Mejia of Mexico, to post bail for his charge of driving without a license after seven months in jail, and return to his fiancee and her children.

“It was a very difficult time for his family, including his parents in Mexico who depend on the money he sends,” said Will Lambek, one of the activists who pushed for a policy change on behalf of Mejia. “The faith and power of an organized community really paid off.”

At the same time, however, county sheriffs guarding courts allowed immigration officials to take prisoners directly from courthouses, resulting in the detention of another young man with a wife and children in the community, Lambek said. That loophole was closed, but too late to stop the deportation of Gustavo Arroyo of Guatemala.

Stories of mistreated immigrants and lawsuits holding localities responsible for civil rights violations have led some communities to rethink whether they should cooperate with immigration authorities.

Even Frederick County no longer holds immigrants for any longer than the original local charges warrant, after a federal court in 2013 found that Jenkins, the sheriff, erred in detaining a Salvadoran immigrant named Roxana Orellana Santos in 2008. Santos was questioned as she ate a sandwich outside her workplace, and officers gestured for her to remain seated while they checked her status, finding an immigration warrant. The court ruled that this warrant “did not provide the deputies with a basis to arrest or even briefly detain Santos.”

MCT Photo/Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Two Years After DACA, State Responses Vary

Two Years After DACA, State Responses Vary

By Tim Henderson,

WASHINGTON — Phoenix resident Franko Milan is happy to have qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the federal program that allows him to work in the U.S. for a two-year renewable period without fear of being deported, even though his parents brought him to this country illegally when he was a baby.

Launched by the Obama administration in 2012, DACA allows Milan and other young people with similar stories to remain in the U.S. temporarily as long as they meet age, education and residency requirements. They can work, and are allowed to receive Social Security numbers.

But in Arizona, DACA can’t get Milan a driver’s license or in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. So he dropped out of college and works as a real estate agent, still fearing the police when he has to drive.

“Most of the time it’s fine,” said Milan, who was in the process of being deported when DACA began in 2012, having been picked up for a traffic violation on his motorcycle. “When you see an officer pull up in back of you, it’s definitely nerve-wracking. Are you going to get a ticket? Is he going to tow the car?”

Life for DACA participants varies dramatically depending on where they live. In addition to denying driver’s licenses and in-state tuition to DACA recipients (and to all other unauthorized immigrants), Arizona makes it difficult for immigrants whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally as children to take advantage of GED diploma programs that would help them qualify for DACA.

In contrast, states such as Illinois, California and Maryland have helped young immigrants to qualify for DACA and to make life easier for them. Illinois, for example, has started a fund to help DACA students pay for medical school. DACA students who get loans from the fund must work in underserved areas after they graduate.

“In Illinois we’re really doing what we can until the federal government takes action,” said Amalia Rioja, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s deputy chief of staff. “We and other states try to do it as best we can, kind of a piecemeal approach, filling in the gaps where we have the authority to do that.”

More than 638,000 young people have applied for DACA since it began in 2012, a rate of about 1,770 per day, according to a June report by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. About 522,000 of them have been approved. DACA participants have to apply for renewal every two years.

About three-fourths of the DACA participants are from Mexico. Milan’s Mexican parents drove him into the country on a tourist visa and stayed illegally. Large numbers also come from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Peru, South Korea, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and the Philippines.

More than half are in California and Texas, but tens of thousands also are in Illinois, New York, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, New Jersey, Colorado and Washington. Least affected are West Virginia, Alaska, North Dakota, Montana and Maine, all with less than 100 DACA approvals.

Sergio Garcia, a Mexican-born attorney, said he has participated in efforts that have helped 10,000 youths achieve DACA status in Florida, Washington, and California. But he can’t take advantage of the program himself.

“I’m very happy with the way it’s changed their lives, but I don’t have that status. I guess it’s bittersweet,” said Garcia, whose Mexican parents brought him to the U.S. illegally in 1977, when he was a baby. At 37, he’s too old to qualify for the program. Without legal work status, Garcia is ineligible to work at a law firm, though a California law allows him to practice on his own.

To qualify for DACA, applicants must be childhood arrivals (younger than 16) who have lived in the U.S. since 2007 and were younger than 31 years old on June 15, 2012. Only current students, high school graduates and veterans are eligible. And applicants who have committed a serious crime, have more than two misdemeanor convictions or are deemed to be a threat to national security are automatically disqualified.

Nationwide, about half of those eligible have applied, according to a study released this month by the Migration Policy Institute. Application rates vary significantly from state to state, from a high of 66 percent in Arizona, the state with the most hostile policies toward DACA recipients, to 37 percent in Massachusetts and New Jersey. Immigrant-friendly Maryland is near the bottom at 41 percent.

“States with more restrictive policies … as well as those that have higher levels of immigration enforcement, may have higher DACA applications rates because the burdens and risks or unauthorized status are especially high in those states,” the study concluded.

A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts (which also funds Stateline) highlighted several examples of states and localities that have embraced the program. In addition to setting up the fund for medical students, Illinois officials representing several state agencies hosted public meetings to disseminate information on DACA and to share best practices. Chicago has conducted workshops to help applicants fill out the necessary forms, and the city has trained public school counselors to provide DACA guidance to students.

Meanwhile in Dallas, public libraries are helping young people use public computers to complete online DACA applications. Several states are trying to protect noncitizens from scams promising legal status for a fee, a practice that becomes popular whenever the federal government announces a legalization or immigration relief program. And 20 states allow DACA students to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.

States such as Arizona and Nebraska are on the other end of the spectrum. In July, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of DACA recipients who sued Arizona to force the state to give them driver’s licenses.

The court issued an injunction blocking the state from denying the licenses, but because the state has asked for a rehearing, the injunction order is on hold. In February, a federal court dismissed a similar lawsuit by immigrants’ rights groups in Nebraska, but a new lawsuit is pending.

Angelica Hernandez immigrated to the U.S. 15 years ago with her mother and sister and grew up in Phoenix. In 2011 she graduated from Arizona State University, and earlier this year she earned a master’s degree in engineering from Stanford University. A DACA recipient, she was able to return to Arizona to work — but she could not get a driver’s license. She continues to use the California driver’s license she got in grad school.

Adonia Simpson, a Baltimore attorney who works with immigrants, said the driver’s license issue looms large for many unauthorized immigrants who arrived as children. Like Milan, many found themselves on the brink of deportation after a routine traffic stop. “This was the number one thing that was bringing them to the attention of immigration authorities, being stopped and not having a license, so this make things much more secure,” Simpson said.

The recent flood of Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone has focused new attention on DACA — much of it negative. The children do not qualify for DACA, which requires U.S. residence since 2007. Nevertheless, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and other Republicans have blamed the border crisis on DACA, claiming it creates the expectation that children arriving illegally will get legal status.

But Simpson said she sees no evidence that DACA is leading children to the border. Maryland is one of the few states where most immigrants are Central American rather than Mexican.

“One of the myths and fallacies out there is that DACA is a push factors leading kids to the United States,” she said. “There’s been a lot of investigation, and the real push factor is extreme violence in their home countries. I’ve interviewed a lot of families and never once has anyone asked about DACA.”

There is some evidence, however, that the Central American immigrant crisis has swayed public opinion on the broader issue of immigration. In July, 68 percent of Americans supported some path for legalization for unauthorized immigrants, down from 73 percent in February, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. Among Tea Party Republicans, support declined to 41 percent from 56 percent.

But DACA also has emboldened people on the other side of the issue. A national network of “Dreamers” — immigrants who arrived as children, whether or not they qualify for DACA — has been vocal in its demands for a halt to deportations and a strengthening of immigrants’ rights.

Dreamers demonstrated in Arizona last week and disrupted a book signing by Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan after Ryan voted for a bill that would have defunded DACA. Also last week, an affiliated Florida group held a protest in South Carolina against Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has blamed DACA for the recent influx of Central American children.

“It really was Dreamers who were empowered enough in the beginning to come out as undocumented and unafraid,” said Mario Carrillo of United We Dream, an immigrant youth group that organized the demonstrations. “They’re the ones who’ve been here for many years and have studied here and who really feel like a part of the fabric of the country, so they do feel more comfortable being outspoken,” Carrillo said.

AFP Photo/Stan Honda

Food Stamp Use Shows Continued ‘Underemployment’ Pain

Food Stamp Use Shows Continued ‘Underemployment’ Pain

By Tim Henderson,

WASHINGTON — Luxuries were affordable for Linda Fish before she lost her job in retail management in 2009.

“I won’t lie. The dinners out, the perfect martinis, the salon visits with a master stylist, and the rooms at nice hotels when I was too lazy or tired to do the long commute home — these things I could afford and they made me very, very happy,” the Chicago resident wrote on her blog soon after she became unemployed.

But in the years after she lost her job, Fish “learned to stop worrying and love minimum wage.” She gained a new appreciation for beans, pasta, and oatmeal when she took a $9 per hour job as a bookstore clerk. It was a shock, Fish said, to go downscale “in a culture where we have been systematically weaned from living with family, cooking our own food, sewing our own clothes, walking,” she told Stateline.

Fish had a job, but she was what economists call “underemployed.” The plight of people like her might explain a puzzling discrepancy between the declining unemployment rate and the rising rate of food stamp usage.

The overall U.S. unemployment rate has steadily declined since the recession officially ended in June 2009. But many Americans still are finding it hard to get by, even if they do have jobs. A key indicator of economic hardship — enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps — is higher in every state than it was five years ago, even though unemployment has dropped in every state during the same period.

Economists say the official unemployment rate underestimates economic pain, since it doesn’t include people who have stopped looking for work or who are barely getting by with part-time or low-paying jobs. The official U.S. unemployment rate is 6.3 percent. But an alternative federal measure that includes people who want to work but are too discouraged to keep looking, and those working part-time though they would prefer to work full time, is 12.6 percent.

Fish never had to resort to food stamps, but enrollment in the program is another way to capture the “underemployment” of people like her, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), which advocates to reduce hunger in the United States. “SNAP is an important lifeline for many people struggling with unemployment and underemployment,” the center said in explaining its emphasis on the expanded unemployment numbers.

South Carolina, for example, has an official unemployment rate of 5.3 percent, down from 11.4 percent in the depths of the recession. No other state has had a steeper decline. But the state has an underemployment rate of 11.9 percent.

States with the highest underemployment rates are California, Nevada, and Arizona, where the expanded rate is 16 percent. The lowest rates are in North Dakota (5.5 percent), Nebraska (7.3 percent), and Wyoming (7.9 percent).

There are now five states, along with the District of Columbia, where at least one in five people are on food stamps — Mississippi, Oregon, New Mexico, Tennessee, and West Virginia. In 2009, there were none in that category, according to a Stateline analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program. The highest usage rate at that time was 17 percent in the District of Columbia.

Generally, food stamps are available to people making up to 130 percent of the poverty level, currently $2,552 a month for a family of four, and provide up to $189 a month per person. The benefit money is issued on a debit-style card, unlike the original stamps and coupons that were used when the program first began.

Nationwide, food stamp usage has started to drop slightly from the 2012 historic high of about 48 million people. It is currently down to about 46 million, in part because some states have reinstated work requirements. But total enrollment remains nearly triple the 17 million food stamp users in 2000. In 2009 nearly 39 million people were on food stamps, and the number rose to 44 million in 2010.

Yet in every state, unemployment is down from 2009 levels, ranging from South Carolina’s dramatic drop to New Mexico’s mild improvement from 6.9 percent to 6.3 percent.

Much of the discrepancy between improving employment news and continued economic suffering, as measured by food stamp use, is due to people who may be employed but making far less than they were before the recession. While Fish, the former retail manager, lost her job in middle age, underemployment is particularly rampant among young college graduates. A New York Fed study this year found that underemployment for college graduates has been steadily climbing since 2001 and the quality of their temporary jobs has steadily dropped.

Since food stamps are federally funded but administered by states, participation also can reflect how successful a state has been at signing up those who are eligible, including jobless workers.

“If you look at areas that were especially impacted by the recession, you’ll see some have really aggressively pushed to boost participation,” said Jennifer Adach, a spokeswoman for FRAC.

The USDA measures food stamp participation compared to the number who are potentially needy, using unemployment, poverty, and near-poverty as factors, to show which states could benefit from more outreach. According to its most recent report in 2012, Delaware, the District of Columbia, and Vermont signed up the highest percentage of potential beneficiaries, while Wyoming, California, and Utah reached the lowest proportion of the needy.

AFP Photo/Scott Olson

Interested in economic news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

In Bid For Millennials, Cities And States Promote Cycling

In Bid For Millennials, Cities And States Promote Cycling

By Tim Henderson,

WASHINGTON — If a 90-minute commute from Brooklyn to New Jersey sounds grueling in a car, just imagine it on a bicycle.

Until a recent job change, 40-year-old Peter Schneider made that daily trip, biking 22 miles from his home in Brooklyn to his marketing job in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. — and he loved it. “Commuting and exercising at the same time kills two birds with one stone,” he said.

Cycling to work wouldn’t have been possible, Schneider said, without the protected bike lanes of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, a 32-mile route that circumnavigates the island of Manhattan.

Communities across the country are weighing similar routes, believing that a cycling-friendly reputation will help them attract millennials and the creative and economic energy that comes with them.

“States and cities are competing for the most mobile generation ever and so the job creators and the innovators are really pushing for these amenities,” said Bill Nesper, who heads the “Bicycle Friendly America” program at the League of American Bicyclists. “Baby boomers want to live near millennial children and their grandchildren, so we’re really seeing Washington and most major cities seeing this as a way to attract and keep talented people.”

States with the highest commuting rates by bicycle are in the West, according to a Stateline review of Census Bureau data from the 2012 American Community Survey. In Alaska (1.1 percent), California (1.1 percent), Colorado (1.5 percent), Hawaii (1.2 percent), Montana (1.6 percent), Oregon (2.5 percent), and Wyoming (1.2 percent), more than 1 percent of commuters pedal to work.

In contrast, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and West Virginia all have bike commuting rates of less than 0.2 percent.

Nationwide, less than 1 percent of workers commute by bike. Bike commuters are mostly 16-44 years old, and male cyclists outnumber women by almost 3-to-1, according to the Stateline analysis.

But the rates are significantly higher in cities such as Washington, D.C (4.1 percent of all commutes) and Brooklyn (1.5 percent), where residential areas are close to workplaces. People between the ages of 16 and 34, a significant portion of the population in those cities, have shown the greatest interest in alternatives to cars, driving 23 percent less on average than they did at the turn of the century, according to a study published last year.

Though its bike commuter percentage is lower than that of some other states, Washington state has topped the list of bike-friendly states compiled by The League of American Bicyclists for seven years in a row. It gets especially high marks for educating and encouraging cyclists. Much of the credit for that ranking goes to Seattle, which has a bike commuting rate of 4.1 percent. The city is known for its innovative pavement markings and plans to put protected lanes near every home.

Davis, Calif., is another standout. The self-proclaimed “Bicycle Capital of America,” which is home to the U.S. Cycling Hall of Fame, has a bike commuting rate of nearly 20 percent, including 14 percent of female commuters.

Among large cities, Portland, Ore., has spurred tremendous growth in bike commuting with its aggressive program of protected lanes and other bike-friendly programs, like bicycle-sensitive traffic signals. Lately the city has embarked on a system of “greenway” streets where stop signs are minimized and there are speed bumps to calm traffic.

Between 1990 and 2009, the percentage of Portland commuters traveling by bike increased from 1 percent to 5.8 percent, more than any other large city, according a 2011 study of U.S. and Canadian cities by John Pucher at Rutgers University. The popularity of biking in Portland has even spawned a colorful cyclist character named Spyke on the television comedy “Portlandia.” Spyke pedals the streets proclaiming, “Bicycle rights!”

“Portland’s comprehensive package of cycling policies has succeeded in raising cycling levels sixfold and provides an example that other North American cities can follow,” according to Pucher.

The biggest single reason for a low ranking, Nesper said, is a lack of bike “infrastructure,” including dedicated bike lanes, signs, and protective barriers.

“In order to be a really great, high-performing bike-friendly community like Portland, Seattle, or Minneapolis, you have to make bicycle trips easier but you also need to give bicyclists a place to ride that is their own. That’s what’s going to attract those people who are still on the sidelines,” he said.

Photo: Tejvan Pettinger via Flickr

Interested in news about health? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!