U.S. Workers Crowding Out Immigrant Laborers

Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, December 20, 2008

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These days, more than immigrants are packing the Hollywood Community Job Center: Unemployed Americans are joining them. There’s little work for anybody.

“Everybody is coming to look for work,” says Rene Jemio, outreach coordinator for the hiring hall. “It’s not just your average immigrant anymore; it’s African-Americans and whites, too.”

For the first time in a decade, unskilled immigrants are competing with Americans for work. And evidence is emerging that tens of thousands of Hispanic immigrants are withdrawing from the labor market as U.S. workers crowd them out of potential jobs. At least some of the foreigners are returning home.

“We see competition from more nonimmigrant workers,” says Abel Valenzuela, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who studies day laborers. “Employers are also paying less than in previous years,” he says.

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Since 2003, the labor force participation rate—the employed or job-seeking share of the population—among foreign-born Hispanics had been consistently on the rise. The decline in the third quarter of 2008 “is a testament to the character and depth of the current recession triggered by the housing slump,” says the Pew report.

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Latin American workers bore the brunt of the collapse of the construction sector, which employs 20% to 30% of all foreign-born Hispanics in this country. As the housing market tumbled last year, they lost jobs in ever-greater numbers.

Competition has become fierce even in agriculture, where farmers had struggled in recent years to hire enough immigrants to harvest crops, sometimes letting fruit wither on the vine.

Growers across the country are reporting that farmhands are plentiful; in fact, they are turning down potential field workers. “For the first time since 9/11, we have applicants in excess of our requirements,” says Bob Gray, chief executive of Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., a grower, packer and shipper based in Salinas, Calif.

In particular, Mr. Gray has observed an influx of U.S.-born Latinos and other workers who previously shunned field work. “These are domestic workers who appear to be displacing immigrants,” says Mr. Gray.

A similar situation has emerged in U.S. cities from New York to Los Angeles, where unemployed, nonimmigrant laborers are seeking informal work that typically has been performed by low-skilled immigrants that once commanded a 50% premium over the hourly minimum wage.

The unemployment rate for immigrant Latinos was 6.4% in the third quarter of 2008, compared with 4.5% during last year’s third quarter. However, the rise in unemployment for this group would have been even greater “if not for the fact that many of these workers withdrew from the labor market,” says the Pew report.

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