Most of today's newcomers are Latino in origin, from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Others come from many different countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. While the majority settle in traditional gateway cities with large immigrant communities and a history of employing foreign workers, a growing number are moving into smaller metropolitan areas, rural towns and the suburbs of long-established gateways.
Regardless of their numbers, ethnic origin, or destination, immigrants often arrive at America's front door to find the welcome mat missing. The National Immigration Forum reports that, while 50% of native-born Americans think immigration levels are acceptable, 40% think they should decrease and 10% think immigration should stop altogether.2 These well-worn sentiments have forged a long trail of anti-immigrant policies and legislation that spans the four hundred years of America's history.
Even when newcomers are welcome, their presence can challenge the communities where they settle with extra demands on schools, housing, law enforcement and social services. Local governments, particularly in the newer destinations, often lack the basic institutional tools and experience to deal with the infrastructure needs created by the new population, and nongovernmental organizations are either overburdened or simply nonexistent.
Immigrants face challenges as well, struggling to find housing, jobs and a sense of community. In suburban and rural settlement areas, the receiving immigrant populations are small or non-existent and offer few resources for the newcomers. In places such as Farmingville, New York, working conditions in construction, landscaping and other low-skill service jobs are often poor.
To make matters worse, non-English-speaking laborers, such as those depicted in Farmingville, are often the focus of animosity and resentment from anti-immigrant factions, who believe they weaken the "social fabric" of American communities and threaten American jobs. In spite of this, and the difficulties encountered by immigrants and the communities where they live and work, both parties benefit in many ways as well.
Employers need laborers. Without new immigration, the nation's labor force, which has declined steadily since the 1970s, would have grown by only five percent over the past decade and would have experienced seriously constrained job and economic growth.3
The principal attraction for the foreign manual workers is the high wages relative to those back home. The U.S. minimum wage is at least six times greater than the average wage in Mexico, with an even greater disparity to that of Central America. Many U.S. employers pay significantly above the required minimum, which accounts for the fact that even educated and white-collar workers from these sending countries make the trek north to take advantage of the economic opportunities.
A recent article in The Economist summarized the situation as, "The truth about America's immigration muddle is that it suits most people most of the time. Employers — from semiconductor firms to orange growers — get the workers they need, usually fairly cheaply; immigrants make a living and get an education for their children. An illegal farm worker is paid around $7 an hour, half the rate for a legal one, but double what the same worker could get in Central America."4
Micah Bump is a Research Associate at Georgetown's Institute for the Study of International Migration. His work focuses on new settlement areas, immigrant integration, human trafficking, and remittances.
1 Schmidley, Dianne, 2003. The Foreign-Born Population in the United States: March 2002. Current Population Reports, P20-539, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, D.C.
2 Douglas Rivlin. National Immigration Forum. Interview May 7, 2004.
3Sum, Andrew, Fogg, Neeta, and Harrington, Paul. Immigrant workers and the great American job machine: the contributions of new foreign immigration to national and regional labor force growth in the 1990s.
4 The Economist March 9 2000