For $1.75 an hour, they put up with abusive employers, muggers, rain, snow, potholes, car accidents, six-day weeks, and lousy tips. Not anymore.
The idea of economic mobility in America often evokes a personal story. For many Americans, it is one of immigrant parents or grandparents, or even one’s own journey and arrival. In recent decades, immigration has been rising steadily, with nearly one million legal immigrants entering the country per year throughout the 1990s and in the early years of this century, compared to only about 300,000 per year in the 1960s. In addition to legal immigrants, it is estimated that about 500,000 illegal immigrants now arrive each year.
These numbers clearly show that the allure of the American Dream is alive and well. But is it actually working for today’s immigrants? How has immigrant economic mobility changed over time? And is immigrant economic mobility similar to that of U.S. citizens?
This report explains that the American engine of economic assimilation continues to be a powerful force, but the engine is incorporating a fundamentally different and larger pool of immigrants than it did in earlier generations. The shifting educational and economic profile of today’s immigrants is provoking difficult and important questions about the economic prospects for immigrants in America today.
Economic Mobility Fact Sheet
By Ray Marshall, Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs, July-August 2007
In a broad analysis of the nation’s past immigration policy mistakes, former labor secretary Ray Marshall puts his finger on this most delicate of issues. The United States needs and values its immigrants. But unless it gets policy right, argues Marshall, the number of illegal immigrants will have doubled in twenty years and the situation will be still harder to control. He presents hard-edged and practical solutions to the many issues.
These workers, along with more than 150,000 others from countries as close to the United States as Mexico and as far-flung as India and Thailand, are part of an army of foreign low-wage labor legally imported each year by American companies under a government program known as H-2. Created during World War II to provide workers of last resort for agriculture and other seasonal industries, the program has since grown dramatically amid rising demand from employers in a broad range of industries that were never envisioned when the program was created and that can only vaguely be described as seasonal. Guest workers make chocolate in Louisiana, staff hotel desks in Florida and mow lawns in Missouri. They toil in some of the country’s most difficult and dangerous industries, from shipbuilding to asbestos removal to forestry. While unfamiliar to most Americans, the program has become the template for an expanded guest-worker program now being hotly debated in Congress. Proponents of the plan argue that temporary labor visas give immigrants greater rights and protections while providing employers with a reliable labor force. Yet workers, labor organizers, lawyers and policy-makers say the history of the H-2 visa delivers a very different lesson. They charge that a program designed to open up the legal labor market and provide a piece of the American dream to immigrants has instead locked thousands of them into a modern-day form of indentured servitude. Congressman Charles Rangel has called guest-worker programs “the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”
Source: Robert E. Rector, The Heritage Foundation, Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Immigration of the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States House of Representatives, Delivered May 17, 2007
In FY 2004 there were around 4.5 million low-skill immigrant households in the U.S. containing 15.9 million persons. About 60 percent of these low-skill immigrant households were headed by legal immigrants and 40 percent by illegal immigrants. The analysis presented here measures the total benefits and services received by these “low- skill immigrant households” compared to the total taxes paid.
In FY 2004, the average low skill immigrant household received $30,160 in direct benefits, means-tested benefits, education, and population-based services from all levels of government. By contrast, low-skill immigrant households paid only $10,573 in taxes in FY 2004. A household’s net fiscal deficit equals the cost of benefits and services received minus taxes paid. The average low-skill household had a fiscal deficit of $19,588 (expenditures of $30,160 minus $10,573 in taxes).
At the state and local level, the average low skill immigrant household received $14,145 in benefits and services and paid only $5,309 in taxes. The average low skill immigrant households imposed a net fiscal burden on state and local government of $8,836 per year.
The fiscal burden imposed by low skill immigrant households is slightly greater at the state and local level than at the federal level. The annual fiscal deficit for all 4.54 million low skill immigrant households at the state and local level in 2004 was $49.1 billion. Over the next ten years the state and local fiscal deficit caused by low skill immigrants on state and local governments will approach a half trillion dollars.
Technology sector employers, who represent the largest share of H-1B visa users, tell the public that the H-1B program is vital to their ability to find the highly skilled workers they need. Yet Department of Labor data tell a different story. Previous studies have found that the H-1B program is primarily used to import low-wage workers. This report examines the most recently available wage data on the H-1B program and finds that the trend of low prevailing wage claims and low wages continues. In addition, while industry spokesmen say these workers bring needed skills to our economy, on the H-1B Labor Condition Applications (LCAs) filed with the Department of Labor, employers classify most of their H-1B workers as being relatively low-skilled for the jobs they are filling.
This report compares prevailing wage claims and wages employers reported for H-1B workers in computer programming occupations in FY 2005 to wages for U.S. workers in the same occupation. Although the H-1B program stipulates that employers must pay H-1B workers at least the prevailing wage for their occupation and location, the results of this report clearly demonstrate that the regulation does not produce that result.
The findings in this report clearly demonstrate that the legal definition of the prevailing wage requirement does not ensure H-1B workers are paid the actual market prevailing wage. Employer prevailing wage claims and reported wages for H-1B workers are significantly less than those for U.S. workers in the same occupation and location. This suggests that, regardless of the program’s original intent, the H-1B program now operates mainly to supply U.S. employers with cheap workers, rather than with essential skilled workers.
Ironically, the largest May Day march in U.S. history was not led by the American labor movement, but instead, by a broad-based coalition that included immigrant rights organizations, community and religious groups, some unions, and the Latino media.
This extraordinary movement confronts labor educators with new opportunities and new challenges. At the conference of the United Association for Labor Education in Seattle in May 2006, we launched a task force on immigration to share resources among labor educators. In this article, we would like to present some of the work of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education on immigrant rights. We would also like to present our proposal for launching a new Immigrant Worker Resource Center. Our hope is that this can begin a process of discussion among labor educators who are interested in promoting work on immigrant rights.
Source: Ruth Milkman, Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 32 no. 1, March 2007
This article surveys unionization patterns and other workplace-oriented organizing among Mexican-born workers since the mid-1990s. Although the number of Mexican-born union members grew during that decade, the unionized proportion declined, especially among noncitizens. The decline reflects the large proportion of new immigrants in the Mexican-born population and the increased geographic dispersion of immigration in recent years away from highly unionized states such as Illinois and California. Another factor is that recent Mexican immigrants are underrepresented in the most unionized sectors (such as government employment). However, unions, especially in California, have effectively mobilized Mexican immigrants into electoral politics in the 1990s, and new community-based organizations with a focus on economic justice have also recruited low-wage Mexican immigrant workers in occupations such as day labor and domestic service, in which conventional unionism is rare.
Source: Lory Hough, Kennedy School, Harvard University, Winter 2007
Economist George Borjas believes statistics have a powerful role to play in the hot-button debate on immigration.