U.S. Workers Crowding Out Immigrant Laborers for Unskilled Jobs
by Miriam Jordan Wall Street Journal December 22, 2008
LOS ANGELES, California
The economic downturn has meant less available work for immigrants
and more competition from Americans.
A year ago, a day-laborer center adjacent to a Home Depot here teemed with Latin American immigrants who showed up and found a sure day's work painting, gardening or hauling.
These days, more than immigrants are packing the Hollywood Community Job Center: Unemployed Americans are joining them. There's little work for anybody.
"Everybody is coming to look for work," says Rene Jemio, outreach coordinator for the hiring hall. "It's not just your average immigrant anymore; it's African-Americans and whites, too."
For the first time in a decade, unskilled immigrants are competing with Americans for work. And evidence is emerging that tens of thousands of Hispanic immigrants are withdrawing from the labor market as U.S. workers crowd them out of potential jobs. At least some of the foreigners are returning home.
"We see competition from more nonimmigrant workers," says Abel Valenzuela, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who studies day laborers. "Employers are also paying less than in previous years," he says.
In the third quarter of 2008, 71.3% of Latino immigrant workers were either employed or actively seeking work, compared with 72.4% in the same quarter a year earlier, according to a new study by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization. The 1.1-percentage-point drop "marks a substantial decrease in the labor-market participation of Latino immigrants," says Rakesh Kochhar, the Pew economist who prepared the report.
Since 2003, the labor force participation rate -- the employed or job-seeking share of the population -- among foreign-born Hispanics had been consistently on the rise. The decline in the third quarter of 2008 "is a testament to the character and depth of the current recession triggered by the housing slump," says the Pew report.
"The recession has truly put Hispanic immigrants in a state of flux," says Mr. Kochhar, who based his analysis on data from the Current Population Survey produced jointly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau.
At the Hollywood center, even a year ago, contractors and homeowners employed 30 to 40 workers each day. Now, it isn't unusual for only three or four to get hired, organizers say.
In Houston, where post-hurricane cleanup work is drying up, "the situation is getting more difficult by the day," says Salvador Perez, a 45-year-old Mexican day laborer who has been in the U.S. since 2003. "I like this country for the work opportunity, but now I can barely scrape together a few dollars to send home to my family after paying for rent and food."
Latin American workers bore the brunt of the collapse of the construction sector, which employs 20% to 30% of all foreign-born Hispanics in this country. As the housing market tumbled last year, they lost jobs in ever-greater numbers.
Competition has become fierce even in agriculture, where farmers had struggled in recent years to hire enough immigrants to harvest crops, sometimes letting fruit wither on the vine.
Growers across the country are reporting that farmhands are plentiful; in fact, they are turning down potential field workers. "For the first time since 9/11, we have applicants in excess of our requirements," says Bob Gray, chief executive of Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., a grower, packer and shipper based in Salinas, Calif.
In particular, Mr. Gray has observed an influx of U.S.-born Latinos and other workers who previously shunned field work. "These are domestic workers who appear to be displacing immigrants," says Mr. Gray.
A similar situation has emerged in U.S. cities from New York to Los Angeles, where unemployed, nonimmigrant laborers are seeking informal work that typically has been performed by low-skilled immigrants that once commanded a 50% premium over the hourly minimum wage.
The unemployment rate for immigrant Latinos was 6.4% in the third quarter of 2008, compared with 4.5% during last year's third quarter. However, the rise in unemployment for this group would have been even greater "if not for the fact that many of these workers withdrew from the labor market," says the Pew report.
If they hadn't exited the U.S. labor market, the Pew study estimates, their unemployment rate for the third quarter would have been 7.8%, 3.3 percentage points higher than the same quarter last year.
Among Hispanic immigrants who entered the U.S. between 1990 and 1999, the survey found that 217,000 quit the labor force between the third quarter of 2007 and the third quarter of 2008. Since population falls as a result of individual death or emigration from the U.S., "these trends suggest that at least some foreign-born Latinos are not only leaving the labor force but, perhaps, also returning to their countries of origin," the report said.
"There is definitely a lot of talk about leaving," says Mr. Jemio, who helps manage the Hollywood day-laborer center. "People are on their last hope."
Write to Miriam Jordan at email@example.com
Source: Wall Street Journal