Working In These Times
Despite Recession, Millions of U.S. Migrant Workers Stay Put
There has been considerable talk in the U.S. about how the economic crisis may be the immigration curb that federal policy and right-wing militants were not.
Immigration reform platforms often revolve around the idea that immigrants come to the U.S. for jobs, and severely limiting undocumented immigration can be achieved by strict identity verification by employers and otherwise eliminating the “pull” in the immigration equation.
But things aren’t that simple, especially now that more than 12 million undocumented immigrants and millions more recent legal immigrants live in the U.S. Researchers and immigrants themselves have long known this; a new report (PDF) from the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute (commissioned by the BBC) essentially confirms this.
It concludes that the economic crisis has meant that fewer migrants are heading to major destinations like the U.S., but that those already here are staying put. (The world’s 100 million global migrant workers make up 3 percent of the total world workforce.) Undocumented immigrants and temporary migrant workers worldwide have the toughest deal of all, according to the report:
Along with temporary migrant workers, unauthorized immigrants represent the flows most closely linked to the economy, and thus the ones most likely to fall in poor economic times.
Many of the immigrant workers hardest hit by the recession are vulnerable for a number of reasons: their low local-language skills and limited educational credentials; their concentrations in boom-bust sectors such as construction; their contingent work contracts and arrangements; and the discrimination they face that can be exacerbated in times of recession. The newest hired workers, as well as workers from nationalities that entered a labor market most recently, also may lack social and job networks that can help cushion the impact of recession.
Even though unemployment for Mexicans and Central Americans in the U.S. has doubled since 2006, immigrants from Latin America are not returning home in any significant numbers. Especially with the stepped-up border security and increased cost and danger of crossing the border in recent years, immigrants who have risked and paid so much to come to the U.S. and work here are staying, even if the always grueling labor market open to them is much less promising now.
Before the recession, Mexican and Central American immigrants had lower unemployment rates than the general U.S. public. By June 2009, their unemployment rate was higher, ballooning almost three-fold from 4.4 percent to 11.4 percent in two years. Their rate topped 12 percent for a spell in early 2009, almost equaling African-American unemployment rates for the first time in at least a decade.
Meanwhile the economic crisis in the U.S. and other developed countries has resulted in reduced remittances to developing countries. This could be expected to strengthen the economic “push” factor, even if the pull factor of jobs is reduced. Turkey, Moldova and Poland top the study’s list of countries seeing remittances fall most sharply between 2005 and 2009.
But while global migrants to the U.S. are staying put, it is a different story for internal Chinese migrants, rural workers who have made their ways to the city for jobs and used to return to their villages en masse at Christmas and spring holidays. Now more rural workers are returning home and staying away from the city, the study found. Unfortunately though they are back with their families and away from the usually abusive labor conditions found in cities, it is harder then ever for them to eke out a living in their subsistence farming or other rural existences.
On a different note, the U.S. isn’t the only country where residents are trying to jealously guard what jobs are left for themselves. The MPI study found that Malaysia, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Taiwan, Australia, South Korea and Russia have reduced or moved to reduce work permits for foreigners during the economic crisis. In South Korea, white-collar workers are seeking jobs in agriculture and fish farms that previously were filled by migrant workers.
Countries including Spain, the Czech Republic and Japan are actually paying foreign workers to get out, in the form of transportation assistance or lump sum payments. Japan is going so far as to pay Latin Americans of Japanese descent who have migrated to Japan, known as Nikkeijin, to leave the country. Nikkeijin are disproportionately employed in heavy industry, working for subcontractors.
The study found that in general paying people to leave “had only modest results to date, in part perhaps because they do not take into account migrants’ motivations to stay or leave (such as consideration of the opportunities at home, investments made to emigrate, and existing social and family ties in the country of destination).”
(An exception to the trend of trying to force foreign workers out is Alberta, Canada. The province saw a 340 percent, 45,000-person rise in workers between 2004 and 2008, surely thanks to the exploitation of the province’s controversial tar sands - see my previous blog post.)
The MPI report gives an overall view of the havoc and chaos the economic crisis has wreaked worldwide; and also hints at the enduring forces of community and determination that keep people in a situation which might not be economically logical in the short term. In short, for better or worse the economic crisis is certainly not likely to reverse the trend of our increasingly global and integrated society.