San Diego Union Tribune

March 31, 2005

Immigration plan's assumption on unskilled workers contested

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – Nearly two decades after a sweeping amnesty for illegal immigrants gave Gerardo Jimenez a ticket out of a San Diego County avocado orchard, he worries that the unyielding tide of low-wage workers from Latin America might pull the economic rug out from under his feet.

"There are too many people coming," said Jimenez, who supervises a drywall crew that worked all winter remodeling an office building three blocks from the White House.

Jimenez's concern reflects an ambivalence about immigration among established immigrants in America. It also challenges a key assumption of President Bush's proposal for a massive new guest-worker program: that the United States has a dearth of low-skill workers.

In Atlanta, house painter Moises Milano says competition for jobs is so stiff among immigrants that house painters' wages have been flat since he came to the United States in the late 1980s. They're still $9 an hour, he said, which would mean they've actually fallen significantly when adjusted for inflation. And yet many more aspiring house painters arrive every day from Latin America.

Similar concerns can be heard throughout low-wage industries that Latino immigrants have come to dominate during recent decades, including housekeeping, landscaping, janitorial, chicken processing, meat packing, restaurants, hotels and fast food.

Many of the newest arrivals find work with a breed of subcontractors who put together crews of illegal workers and transport them to job sites across the country.

Jimenez says his company competes for contracts against subcontractors using illegal workers who are prepared to work for less and who don't expect health insurance, overtime or other employment benefits. It puts pressure on his employer to cut labor costs, he said.

"I don't think the government wants to control this, because some people are making a lot of money and because illegals are doing a lot for the economy of this country," Milano said.

"Why would you pay somebody $20 an hour when you can pay somebody $10?" he added. "When I came up (to Atlanta), it wasn't this crowded. Back then, maybe you had 10 people applying for a job. Now, it's 100."

A growing population
The nation's illegal-immigrant population increased 23 percent in the past five years, to 10.3 million from 8.4 million, according to a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C. Illegal immigration was up 70 percent in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, where Jimenez works, according to Pew demographer Jeffrey Passel.

Bush's guest-worker initiative, though still in the conceptual stage, is strongly supported by business lobbying groups such as the Essential Workers Immigration Coalition, which includes hotel and restaurant owners, home builders and landscapers. The groups argue that there aren't enough low-skill workers in America, and they cite Labor Department figures indicating a coming crunch in the labor market.

President Bush agrees.

"People are coming to our country to do jobs that Americans won't do, to be able to feed their families, and I think there's a humane way to recognize that," Bush said as he outlined his proposal a year ago.

But many labor economists and immigration experts dismiss the notion that a shortage of low-wage workers exists, saying Bush's plan would help sustain a glut of low-wage workers that is pushing down labor costs in an expanding array of U.S. industries.

Bush's plan "basically takes all the low-wage labor employers say they need and wraps it up for them with a big ribbon," said Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based research group that focuses on how economic policy affects low-and middle-income workers.

For decades, some experts have worried about the economic impact of the continuing mass influx of low-skill immigrants on all immigrants.

"Immigration of unskilled immigrants comes at a cost to unskilled U.S. workers, particularly established immigrants for whom new immigrants are economic substitutes," the congressionally mandated U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform concluded in 1997. The panel was headed at the time by Barbara Jordan, a civil rights leader and former U.S. representative from Texas. Jordan died in 1996.

Sustaining mass immigration of low-skill workers for several decades has increased profits for employers and lowered costs for consumers, but it also has undercut wages for those workers, said George Borjas, a professor of public policy at Harvard University.

"If we are concerned about the amount of income inequality in society and about the economic well-being of those at the bottom of the distribution, the current practice of importing large numbers of less-skilled workers will not do," he said.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told Congress last year that the federal government, through immigration policy, can either expand or shrink the size of the nation's low-skill labor force. He suggested that restricting immigration might benefit those low-skill immigrants already in the United States.

"Employers would respond in two ways to a tighter labor market," said Krikorian, whose Washington-based organization calls for restrictions on immigration. "First, they would raise wages, increase non-cash benefits, and change working conditions in order to recruit and retain a sufficient work force.

"And second, they would look for ways of making their available workers more productive so as to make up for some of the jobs previously done by foreign labor," he said. "The result would be a smaller number of unskilled workers, each earning higher wages."
Conflicting concerns
Jimenez, the drywall supervisor, comes from a small town in the Mexican state of Jalisco, known for producing tequila, mariachi musicians and immigration networks that for decades have pumped many of its young people to "el otro lado" – the other side of the border.

He is uncomfortable complaining about competition from workers who are as young and eager as he was in 1986, when he finally made it to San Diego after being turned back five times in six nights by the Border Patrol.

He knows the newcomers are simply trying to escape what he escaped, find what he has found, and make the climb he made as he honed his skills as a "drywallero" in the U.S. labor markets, where employers eagerly await their arrival.

"The migrants come because of hunger, because of necessity," he said. "But I would benefit if someone imposed order. My work would be worth more."

Jimenez frets that his company – which pays good wages and offers insurance and vacations – might not be able to compete against companies that don't. His company laid off 100 workers in February, a move he blames partly on a seasonal slowdown and partly on competition from companies that cut costs by using illegal workers.

"This is the problem that all the companies like mine have: How are they going to survive against this whole boom in competition?" he said.

The construction supervisor at the remodeling job where Jimenez worked dates the local construction industry's conversion to a Latino labor force to the mid-1980s, when he himself was supervising a drywall crew here in Washington.

"We were all good old boys back then," said Coleby Cyrtmus. Back then, he said, most of the workers commuted from rural areas well outside the Washington metro area.

Then the company hired an immigrant from El Salvador.

"He asked if he could take home some drywall mud, and at night he would punch holes in the walls of his apartment and fix them, so he could practice," Cyrtmus said.

Soon the number of Latinos began its sharp ascent.

"Maybe a year later, it seemed like half the crew we had was Latino," Cyrtmus said. "Now, it's just about everybody."

The price for installing drywall began to drop about the same time.

"In 1987, I was making $4.50 a board," he said, referring to the 8-by-4-foot panels he installed. Today, he said, the pay is $3 a board.

A need for workers
The immigrant influx came at an opportune time for the construction industry, according to industry representatives. They report a simultaneous decline in interest in the construction trades among U.S.-born youth.

"It's hard work. You get dirty, it's unsafe, you've got to pass a drug test, show up on time, and work in all kinds of (weather) conditions," said Stephen E. Sandherr, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America.

"We've had situations where we've had our contractors at our local chapters basically run out of the building at high school career fairs because few people are interested in their kids going into the construction industry," Sandherr said.

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, the Bush administration's point man on immigration in the House, sees the competition among immigrants as a positive ingredient in a dynamic economy.

Cannon, whose spirited defense of undocumented immigrants as a blessing for the U.S. economy and culture has won him honors from Latino rights organizations, waxed enthusiastic about his own experience in the marketplace of immigrant labor in Utah.

He talked about his decision to replace the roof of his house. The low estimate, he said, came from a contractor who "uses labor that I suspect is not here legally."

Asked what he would say to legal immigrants such as Jimenez and Milano who fear losing their livelihoods to newer illegal immigrants willing to work for less than a living wage, Cannon responds with unabashed enthusiasm and candor.

"The point is, in America there are no guarantees. . . . So, Gerardo, if you're not going to make it in drywall, then you might want to try something else because you've got all the skills," he said.

A moment later, Cannon acknowledged the difficulty that the existing immigrants are likely to face.

"Those are the people who are going to be caught in the bind," he said, "and they're going to have to make adjustments and improve."

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