My neighbor two doors down flies a Confederate flag alongside his more conventional stars and stripes. He drives a pickup truck, sports a number of provocative tattoos, and is about as white as Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich. I don't know if he would vote for either Sarah or Newt, but he's a pretty conservative guy. Still, he gets along reasonably well with the interracial couple who lives between us. And his son-in-law, an immigrant from El Salvador, just spent the last two weekends replacing our damaged shed with one that looks a whole lot better than anything Home Depot offers.
The media tends to portray the immigration issue as black and white (or brown and white). But the new America is a lot more mixed up and complicated than the neat categories imagined by pundits and rabblerousers. When I told my neighbor about our damaged shed, he didn't tell me to hire a white guy or to avoid a construction crew of immigrant labor. His first suggestion was, of course, his son-in-law.
In my neighborhood just outside of Washington, DC, it would be difficult in any case to find a contractor who doesn't rely at least in part on immigrant labor. Spanish has become the operative language on construction sites, as even the Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges. Nearly one-quarter of the Latin American immigrants in the Washington area work in construction. If it weren't for immigrants, nothing would get built or repaired in this area. As nannies, landscapers, and clerks at the supermarket -- as well as lawyers and doctors and teachers -- recent immigrants ensure that life in the nation's capital hums along. Even Chinese restaurants in Chinatown have begun to rely on Latino waitstaff.
At a time of economic recession, when the unemployment rate went up a bit to 9.6 percent in August, there is much talk of "them" taking "our" jobs, of immigrants occupying positions that the native-born see as their birthright. This is, of course, nonsense. Immigrants are taking jobs that would otherwise go unfilled. Just ask anyone who runs a farm in Florida or California.
Indeed, the United Farm Workers (UFW) began a campaign not long ago that it aptly calls Take Our Jobs. "Farm workers are ready to welcome citizens and legal residents who wish to replace them in the field," the UFW says. "We will use our knowledge and staff to help connect the unemployed with farm employers. Just fill out the form to the right and continue on to the request for job application." Arturo Rodriguez, president of the UFW, told comedian Stephen Colbert that only three people signed up. "Americans do not want to work in the fields," he explained. "It's difficult, it requires expertise, and the conditions are horrid."
But don't just take our word for it. Let's go to the economists, who have been engaged in a lively debate about the impact of immigrants on the U.S. economy. According to the classic supply-and-demand argument, the greater number of immigrant workers, the greater downward pressure there will be on wages and the greater competition for jobs. That would seem to bolster the arguments of people fearful of "them" taking "our" jobs.
As with my Confederate-flag waving neighbor, however, the situation is more complicated. In an interview with Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) senior analyst Mark Engler, economist Giovanni Peri explains that supply-and-demand doesn't quite capture the reality. "If you have workers who do jobs that are not the same, and if they specialize in types of tasks that are complementary, this can increase wages and productivity for both," he argues. "An extreme example of this would be if you have an engineer and you add a construction worker. With the engineer by himself you're not going to do much. But with an engineer plus a construction worker, you can build a building. Therefore, the productivity of the engineer goes up a lot. And the wages for both workers increase."
When it comes to the contributions of immigrants, Peri goes on, "for the economy as a whole there is a positive effect on productivity, employment, and wages."
So, if you're upset about the unemployment rate, don't blame immigrants. For starters, blame the U.S. companies that are sitting on a record $837 billion in cash. "That's enough to pay 2.4 million people $70,000-a-year salaries for five years," writes Matt Krantz in USA Today. Blame the Obama administration for shelling out a million bucks per soldier in Afghanistan, which could go instead toward creating good jobs at home. Blame those in Congress who refuse to support further stimulus spending.
I'm definitely upset about the unemployment rate, so I'm planning to turn out for the One Nation Working Together mobilization here in Washington on October 2. It won't just be union activists hitting the streets. Also there will be organizations like the National Immigrant Solidarity Network and Immigration Equality. After all, those concerned about jobs and those concerned about immigrant rights are learning to work together. Even if the slogan has lost some luster in the Oval Office, the "yes we can" spirit lives on at the grassroots. Or, as my neighbor might say: We have met the new immigrants, and they are us.
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