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.