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Study highlights effect of skin color and height on immigrants' wages

If you're a tall, fair-skinned, legal U.S. immigrant, you are likely to earn more than your shorter, darker-skinned counterparts, according to a recent study conducted by a Vanderbilt University professor.

Joni Hersch, professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt University Law School, published the study, which is titled "Profiling the New Immigrant Worker: The Effects of Skin Color and Height" and was released in August. The study is based on demographic data and information culled from interviews of over 2,000 adult immigrants lawfully admitted into the United States as permanent residents.

Interviewers who helped conduct the study rated immigrants' skin color on a one-to-10 scale, with one being the lightest and 10 being the darkest. Hersch said the majority of post-1965 U.S. immigrants have been from Latin America and Asia and, on average, are shorter and have darker skin color than those from earlier time periods.

Hersch found immigrants with the darkest skin colors earned up to 15 percent less than immigrants with the fairest complexions, even after controlling for variables that might skew the numbers, such as interviewer bias, race, nationality, ethnicity, English language proficiency, education, type of occupation, work history and type of visa status.

"After I couldn't come up with anything else as an explanation - other than the things that I already tested for - I think it means that it's discrimination (on the basis of skin color) and a possible hostility toward immigrants," she said.

"The results are so strong that you're as bad off if you're one unit darker than if you have one year less of education," Hersch told ABC News in an Oct. 18 article.

Hersch told The Herald she was "stunned" by her own findings. "It's absolutely amazing to me as an academic approaching an empirical study that skin color still has an important effect on wages, even taking to account skills, even taking to account language proficiency, even taking to account race and even taking to account nationality," she said.

Professor of Economics Glenn Loury, who will teach EC 137: "Race and Inequality in the United States" in the spring, said he isn't surprised to hear that skin color and height affect wages.

"It's been known for a long time that partners of big law firms are two inches taller," he said. The link between skin color and wages "raises the possibility of racial prejudice," he said. "People may be taking skin color as a proxy for something else. Maybe they see a light-skinned person and they think that they are more educated or more reliable."

In addition to subconscious discrimination related to skin color, Hersch said discrimination on the basis of height can also be subconscious. "Immigrants are on average shorter than U.S. citizens, so the taller you are, the more you look like a native-born U.S. resident," she said.

Hersch writes in the study: "One mechanism for the influence of height is via health status, especially in less developed countries, as height is directly related to health status, which may affect market productivity."

William Shuey, the executive director of the International Institute of Rhode Island, a nonprofit immigration referral center that provides educational, legal and social services to immigrants, also said he was not surprised by Hersch's findings.

He cited other obstacles facing immigrants in addition to skin color and height discrimination. "Culture is in many ways a more formidable barrier for immigrants, particularly if they come here past the age of about 16 or 17," he said. "They are so rooted in the culture that they come from that it's really a lifetime adjustment."

"The issues of discrimination and race are so embedded in our culture that it's pretty depressing," he added.


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