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Across the threshold of the twenty-first century, America again finds itself transformed by immigration. Stretching back nearly four decades, the immigrant tide has yielded newcomers in unprecedented numbers. Evidence of a changed nation shows up wherever one goes. Venture deep into the heartland, and one runs into foreign accents; dig a little deeper, and one encounters the networks that link the immigrants and the institutions that sustain them.
But the most impressive signs appear in the country's chief urban concentrations. Travel to New York or Los Angeles or Miami or San Francisco, and the sounds are those of the tower of Babel, the faces those of a cross-section of humanity. In these capitals of immigrant America, we seem to have returned to the turn of the past century. Amid the dawn of a technologically different (we hesitate to say new) age, the numbers tell us that immigrant America has returned.
But have we just come full circle? Native Americans included, we all arrived from somewhere else. True, not all came in eager search of a better life—those transported to the new world as slave ship cargo, for example, were anything but hopeful fortune-seekers. Nevertheless, a nation of immigrants is how we think of ourselves; after all, our country bears the peculiarly abstract name of the United States of America; it is a place that no one claims as a motherland or fatherland. As unsettled as the newcomers' advent often makes us, we realize that there is something here of which to be proud: immigration is proof of the power of the American dream.
Although the new immigrants quickly find out that the streets are not paved with gold, this too is part of our shared historical experience. Conditions may be tough in the cities of immigrant America, but the opportunities have to be better than the prospects "back home." Ours is a world of instantaneous global telecommunication, where "my hometown" is only a click of the internet-connected mouse or, at worst, a telephone call away; if opportunities in the United States did not beckon, why would the immigrants come? Why would they stay?
There is something deeply familiar about America's re-emergence as an immigrant magnet. There is also something bewildering. Last time around, there seemed a fit between the evolving economy and the types of immigrants we received. The American economy on the brink of the twentieth century was growing at a rapid clip. In a tight labor market, employers wanted no more than brawn and a willingness to work hard—just what the newcomers provided. Arriving with no capital, few useful skills, and—the Jews excepted—limited literacy, the southern and eastern European predecessors of the 1880–1920 period moved easily into the new urban economy's bottom rungs: servants, laborers, longshoremen, schleppers all. Gradually, their descendants moved toward the top, making the best of the old factory-based economy, which allowed for a multigenerational climb up the totem pole. Immigrant children did well just by hanging on through the high school years, with well-paid manufacturing jobs awaiting them upon graduation. The third generation continued through college and beyond, completing the move from peddler to plumber to professor (the dirty secret being that the wages of brainwork did not always exceed the earnings enjoyed by workers in the skilled crafts).
In some ways, contemporary immigration has turned the process around. The hidden story of today's immigration involves the many newcomers who arrive here with considerable advantages and quickly accumulate more. Well-educated, entrepreneurial, entering the professions in growing numbers, these newcomers fit right into the new economy, eschewing the bottom and entering at or near the top.
The story of highly educated immigrants who bring the skills required by the New World Order is, however, but half the tale. Contemporary immigration to the United States has a split personality, its legions of scantily schooled laborers and service workers uncannily recalling the immigrant proletarians of yore. But now, unlike then, the least-skilled workers are overwhelmingly foreign-born, with the schooling gap separating them from natives extraordinarily large.
Somehow, America is making room for large numbers of immigrants who are not simply recently arrived, unfamiliar with American ways, and unable to make do in English but also lacking the rudiments of formal schooling that nearly all U.S.-born adults, regardless of ethnic background, take for granted. Our postindustrial, high-tech economy would seem to have no place for "foreigners" with little more sophistication than their European predecessors of a century ago. Yet these immigrants appear to enjoy other traits that employers sorely want. The predictions of economic experts notwithstanding, the newcomers are working, often holding jobs at enviable rates. And although the hard-working immigrant fits the iconography of American life, the public is more than a little ambivalent, concerned that new immigrants are taking jobs that would otherwise be held by less-skilled domestic workers with few other resorts.
WHAT ARE THEY DOING HERE?
Immigration scholars have no problem in plausibly explaining why less-skilled immigrants might want to come. Economic incentives provide the pull. For most immigrants, wages at the very bottom of the U.S. labor market tower over the alternatives available back home. True, one needs to take into account the cost of migration, a considerable factor for migrants traveling long distances. Those who attempt to enter surreptitiously, whether by land, sea, or air, pay an additional freight, first in the fees handed over to smugglers and coyotes, second in the potential costs of apprehension and return. There also is no guarantee that newly arrived immigrants will find a job. After all, theirs tend to be labor markets in which joblessness, if only of the frictional sort, is usually high. Many others, moreover, have come upon the same idea of bettering their lives by heading for the United States, which means that arrival puts one at the end of a long queue of newcomers vying for the same jobs. For the individual migrant, therefore, competition with other newcomers adds an additional item to the cost of moving to the Promised Land. Still, the balance sheet is likely to favor coming; those who forecast that the benefits of migration will outweigh the associated costs have good grounds for wagering on life in this particular piece of the New World.
This narrative of migration—related mainly, but not exclusively, by economists—illuminates the considerations that motivate potential immigrants. But one could also say that it simply elaborates on common sense: it stands to reason that people are not going to migrate unless they have good reason. If one is looking for an understanding of why migrations begin or intensify, the conventional narrative does not provide a convincing explanation. Unless the comparative advantage of moving to the United States, taking account of the associated costs, increases, migration rates would, one might expect, remain where they were—as opposed to the dramatic uptick experienced by the United States in the three past decades.
Consider Mexican migration to California, the best case in point. Although Mexicans might have done well in crossing the border at almost any time over the past century, their migration to the United States has ebbed and flowed. The most recent inflection point (upward) dates to the mid-1960s. Between the 1860s and the 1960s, most who moved to California—and who presumably undertook the type of crude cost/benefit analysis imagined by the economists—came from elsewhere in the United States. Something changed in the 1960s, however, that in turn loosened the flow to el Norte, in a stream that has since expanded at an ever-increasing pace. What confounds the economists' story is that the California/Mexico wage gap was a yawning divide before as well as after the sudden increase in migration from Mexico. The underlying impetus to the migration inevitably lies somewhere else.
If migrants move in response to perceived opportunity, one has to wonder about the relationship between this perception and the reality to be encountered, given the economies of the destinations on which today's less-educated arrivals converge. As in the past, newcomers today are flocking to cities, heading for the very largest—Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago—where their compatriots have already put down roots. There is nothing surprising about this predilection; it is simply that our understanding of the evolution of urban America suggests that the metropolitan economies should have little place for the low-skilled. In an era when the marketability of America's less-educated urbanites has plummeted, how can immigrants find even minimal success?
After all, America spent the last half of the twentieth century struggling with an "urban problem" derived from the barriers faced by ghetto-dwelling African Americans striving to get ahead. While academics, journalists, and politicians produced a plethora of explanations for the sluggishness of black progress, the most influential emphasized the mismatch between the requirements of urban employers and the skills of black ghetto residents, providing an account that took the following form: African Americans entered the American metropolis as the least skilled of all workers, and apathetic reception in urban schools kept their offspring at the low end of the education spectrum. Consequently, they found themselves vulnerable as a steady accretion in skill requirements increasingly put less-schooled workers at risk, no matter where they lived. Moreover, the drift of jobs from the cities toward the urban fringe proved an additional disaster: disproportionately concentrated in cities, African Americans experienced the deindustrialization of urban America with particular severity. Suffering from residential segregation, they rarely had the option of following less-skilled jobs to the suburban and, later, exurban hinterlands. While America's major urban places generally recovered from the loss of their industrial base, over the past two decades, new sources of urban economic growth provided few viable alternatives for less-skilled men and women struggling to support families. And thus episodes of urban prosperity in the 1960s, 1980s, and late 1990s did little to help African-American fortunes.
This story enjoys the ring of plausibility, mainly because it links the fate of black city dwellers to the extraordinary and visible economic changes in American cities. The conventional wisdom, however, focusing on skill deficiencies of blacks, fails to give adequate weight to the considerable educational upgrading that African Americans have undergone since the bad old days—when they were employed at much higher rates; if the problem hinges on a diminishing demand for less-skilled workers, then the distance that African Americans have traversed over the past several decades should have greatly reduced their vulnerability. Persons with a high school degree or less may still be in trouble, but as of the late 1990s, this comprises a declining proportion of the black population, reflecting substantial improvement over earlier decades.
But the accounts emphasizing the mismatch between urban populations and economic boom have even more trouble explaining the immigrant tide that has transformed metropolitan America in recent decades. The limited education of the immigrants with whom we are concerned ought to put them at the bottom of employers' lists, but it does not. Unskilled immigrants, far less schooled than the least-schooled American blacks, have found jobs that, if the received wisdom of the last forty years is correct, should not exist. And the newcomers have not just discovered a handful of overlooked jobs, they have secured niches that allow them to work at remarkably high rates even during recessionary times. There is good reason to wonder at the paradox of high employment among less-educated immigrants when the American metropolis has long been said to suffer a shortage of jobs suited to the unskilled True, no one argued that the urban economy had dispensed with dishwashers and floor sweepers, but the new immigrant phenomenon is of a far greater magnitude. The massive infusion of less-skilled immigrants into urban America is convincing evidence that they have found a role well beyond such a small cluster of indelibly manual jobs.
SEGMENTATION AND LABOR MARKET STRUCTURE
The answer lies in the social processes that structure America's economy, encouraging new groups to enter the U.S. labor market, there to consolidate their own space. Immigrants to the U.S. make their way to a labor market far from uniform in structure, consisting, instead, of several segments, where jobs of a particular type are linked with categorically distinctive workers. The role played by gender in structuring access to jobs and occupations provides the best illustration. In spite of the massive entry of women into jobs from which they had previously been excluded, men and women continue to experience high levels of occupational segregation. The barriers that make it difficult for women to move into male-dominated occupations—and unlikely, if not quite so difficult, for men to move into fields dominated by women—tell us that when employers are looking for the most "appropriate" worker, suitability is largely determined categorically, heavily influenced by the sex of the person who typically fills the job. Much the same holds for ethnicity.
To each category of person, that is, a type of job. In our market economy, employers allocate jobs to the "best" workers, but "best" is not only defined in terms of the qualities—aptitude, skill, experience, productivity—that directly impinge on ability to get the job done. Any national or local economy bears the imprint of the social structure in which it is embedded. In a racialized society like the United States, entire ethnic groups are ranked according to sets of socially meaningful but arbitrary traits; these rankings determine fitness for broad categories of jobs. All other qualifications equal, members of the top-ranked group are picked first when employers decide whom to hire; the rest follow in order of rank. We refer to this ordering of job candidates by ethnic or racial groups as a hiring queue.
The ordering of an employer's hiring queue is always subject to change. Growth pulls the topmost group up the totem pole, leaving vacancies that lower-ranking groups may seize, thus producing openings at the bottom, which employers can fill by recruiting workers from outside the economy—migrants. For awhile—the period often coincides with the working life of the migrants' generation—the newcomers work in the jobs for which they were recruited; however, their children are almost always oriented toward better prospects, thus creating new demand for migrants.
Not only do workers get ranked. Jobs also stand in a hierarchy, with the characteristics that workers value (pay, stability, benefits, and autonomy) typically going together. So there are "good jobs" and "bad jobs," and the size of the potential pool of candidates varies with the quality of a given position. At the top of the labor market, there is often an ample labor supply; even if employers experience spot shortages, the job-seeker correctly perceives that the number of good jobs is almost never sufficient.
At the bottom of the labor market, by contrast, the labor supply is inherently unstable. "Bad jobs" are a defining trait of our unequal (indeed, increasingly unequal) capitalist society. Insiders—members of the society by birth or socialization—have plenty of reasons to look for alternatives to jobs of the least desirable sort, starting with the fact that working at the bottom of the pecking order is inherently stigmatizing. But natives do not respond solely to a job's low standing, or to the inherently unpleasant, sometimes demeaning conditions associated with its performance. They also note that jobs at the bottom repeatedly attract stigmatized outsider groups, whose disrepute becomes an aspect of the work. So when economic expansion makes mobility possible, the established native workforce opts for the alternative—in quest of better coin, but also of greater esteem.
Excerpted from How the Other Half Works by Roger Waldinger, Michael I. Lichter. Copyright © 2003 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Posted March 28, 2013