Migrant labor is an issue receiving an increasing amount of attention. It has become a matter of growing importance as a number of factors, including rapid population expansion and higher rates of urbanization, lead many people to seek better economic opportunities in other countries.
The International Labour Organization estimates there are roughly 96 million migrant workers and their dependents in the world today. Some experts predict that the number will double in the next twenty years.
In the United States there are 6.3-million illegal workers in the United States, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center. About half of those are from Mexico. These illegal Mexican immigrants are at the center of an ongoing debate as to how the United States should handle illegal immigration.
A common belief is that Mexicans immigrate to the United States in order to find work. But according to a study conducted by the center, a lack of jobs in Mexico is not a major reason that immigrants come to the United States illegally. Rather, immigrants are driven out of their home country because of Mexico's low wages, poor job quality and lack of long-term prospects and opportunity.
Study results were based on interviews with 4,836 men and women applying for Mexican identification cards at consulates in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Fresno, Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C.
The study found that only 5% of Mexican immigrants who have been in the United States for less than two years were unemployed in Mexico. In fact, the vast majority of undocumented migrants interviewed were gainfully employed before they left for the United States.
The study also found that immigrants have little trouble finding work in the United States, despite the lack of legal rights to work. After six months in the United States, only 5% of the immigrants reported being unemployed. This statistic reveals how important these immigrant workers are to the United States economy, because they perform jobs that few others are willing to do.
And they do so for low wages. Immigrants generally make poverty-level wages in the United States, or about $300 per week. While shockingly low, these wages are twice what workers in Mexico make.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center study, Mexican immigrants provide many types of labor needed around the country, including construction in Atlanta, Dallas and Raleigh; hospitality in New York; manufacturing in Chicago; and agriculture in California. These four industries employed about two-thirds of survey respondents.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington D.C., says it's not news that a demand for low-wage labor exists in the United States. But instead of establishing guest-worker programs or amnesty for illegal immigrants, Krikorian advocated removing immigrant workers from the economy gradually. In his view, this would, among other things, improve wages for American workers.
Despite a seemingly steady stream of immigrant workers, farms in California and other businesses are having a hard time finding enough people willing to work for low wages. Many immigrants are choosing to work in the riskier but higher paying construction industry. And the government and civilian border patrol groups like the Minutemen are stepping up efforts to secure the United States-Mexico border, making it harder for immigrants to enter.
Government officials, including the President, want to establish new legislation that will more strongly enforce the immigration laws.
In January of 2004 President Bush outlined a plan to revamp the nation's immigration laws and allow some eight million illegal immigrants to obtain legal status as temporary workers, saying the United States needs an immigration system "that serves the American economy and reflects the American dream."
Illegal immigrants already in the United States could apply for the temporary worker program only if they already had a job. The special status would last for three years and could be renewed once, for a total stay of six years. If temporary workers failed to stay employed or broke the law, they would be sent home.
Bush said the new legal status would allow illegal immigrants to travel back to their home countries without fear of not being allowed to return to the United States.
The reason for the reform, Bush said, is to confront "a basic fact of life and economics -- some of the jobs being generated in America's growing economy are jobs American citizens are not filling."
Currently, about 140,000 "green cards" are issued each year to people wanting to migrate to the United States. Bush has called on Congress to raise it, but did give a specific number.
Bush described the immigration proposals as a national security measure that will help the United States exert more control over borders. "Our homeland will be more secure when we can better account for those who enter our country," he said. "Instead of the current situation, in which millions of people are unknown... law enforcement will face few problems with undocumented workers and will be better able to focus on the true threats to our nation from criminals and terrorists."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in coordination with the Labor Department and other agencies, would administer the new program.
When Bush announced his ideas in early 2004, some Democratic party leaders voiced suspicion that he was trying to increase his popularity with the Latinos contingent as the 2004 campaign got under way. Senator Kennedy said "I certainly hope the administration's long-awaited reinvolvement in this fundamental debate is genuine and not because of election-year conversion. The immigration status quo is outdated, unjust and unacceptable."
Many senators also have ideas on reforming immigration law. Republican Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona propose a program that would allow immigrants to work in the United States for two years, followed by a one-year break. This pattern could be repeated a total of three times before the worker had to return to his or her home country permanently.
Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., support legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to work in the United States for up to six years without obtaining any permits or paperwork. After the six years, workers would have to be in the process of obtaining legal residency or return to their home country.
And Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has proposed granting illegal immigrant workers legal status if they pass criminal background checks, have lived in the United States for at least five years, pay taxes, have working knowledge of the English language and pay a $2,000 fee. Before this program is implemented, Hagel wants to see border security strengthened.
But efforts to stem the tide of immigrant workers flowing into the United States seem to have stalled. Many farmers do not want to change the system that provides them with much-needed labor. And conservative anti-immigrant groups like vigilante group the Minutemen critically oppose reform that would in any way encourage immigration.
"Guest worker programs are worthless," says Minutemen president Chris Simcox. "We can't even talk about that until there is real government enforcement on the border." The Minutemen is an all-volunteer organization of citizens opposing illegal immigration. Members patrol the United States-Mexico border in search of illegal immigrants trying to cross over.
"This is a direct challenge to President Bush," Simcox has said. "You have continued to ignore this problem. Our state officials, senators, and congressmen will do nothing. So this is a last-ditch effort to roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves."
The Minutemen and others believe that illegal immigrants are bad for the United States, an economic drain and security threat. Immigrants often require the assistance of government and social service agencies, but because of their non-legal status often do not pay the taxes that fund these programs. Groups like the Minutemen claim immigrants are a threat to national security.
Many businesses and industries also oppose new immigrant legislation for fear that it might further reduce the pool of available workers they need. Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says most Americans are unwilling to do hard labor or farm jobs. Immigrants are willing and do them cheaply, making their presence a matter of economic importance.
Those in favor of new immigrant legislation may get their way. A 2004 poll by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government found that Americans are less negative about immigration than they have been in several years. However, non-immigrant Americans polled felt that the government has not been tough enough on immigration. They would like the government to spend more to tighten the borders.
According to http://www.census.gov, Florida has between 243,000 and 385,000 undocumented immigrants. But the numbers probably are even higher, because experts say illegal immigrants often avoid government surveys. The 2002 Census survey included both legal and illegal immigrants.
In the Tampa Bay area, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have seen foreign-born populations grow faster than the general population. Of the more than one million residents in Hillsborough, 13% are foreign-born. Census data shows that Hillsborough's foreign-born population grew more than 80% during the 1990s-four times the growth rate of the overall population.
In Pinellas, the proportion of foreign-born residents topped 10% for the first time in 2002, according to the Census Bureau. The foreign born population grew 45% during the 1990s, nearly six times the growth rate of the overall population.