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Jobs Exist for Immigrants, Study Finds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Contradicting widespread fears that an increasingly high-tech economy is squeezing out low-skilled immigrants, a new study has concluded that even computer-products manufacturers and other information-age businesses will continue to need new arrivals with little education and skill.

The findings go against the contention of immigration critics that a modernizing economy in California and elsewhere is more and more dependent on a college-educated work force and has dwindling space for unskilled immigrants, such as the majority of those arriving from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

“There is still a very large stratum of jobs requiring little or no formal training prior to employment, with very minimal to nonexistent requirements for English proficiency,” said Wayne Cornelius, a political scientist at UC San Diego who directed the three-year study, which focused on two metropolitan areas: San Diego and Hamamatsu, an industrial city southwest of Tokyo. “We may not like the fact that so-called ‘bad’ jobs survive in our high-tech, postindustrial economy, but it’s simply wishful thinking to expect that they are going to disappear in the foreseeable future.”

In fact, Cornelius found that unskilled immigrant labor is increasingly “structurally embedded” into the economy, especially in California, where immigrants have largely replaced U.S.-born workers in many occupations, from electronics assembler to gardener to domestic worker.

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Even firms using highly advanced technologies require multitudes of low-skilled employees in the production of circuit boards, CD-ROM devices, magnetic recording heads and other electronic components, the study found.

While much of this work is performed in low-wage nations, especially in Southeast Asia, a significant amount of the labor still takes place in the United States and Japan, where immigrant labor helps keep the firms competitive and contributing to the U.S. and Japanese economies.

In Japan, where migrant workers from Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region tend to have higher skill levels than Third World migrants to the United States, the study also found that the vast majority of foreign workers in Hamamatsu are typically hired to perform low-skilled manufacturing, construction and service jobs.

“You have to ask yourself, would the United States, as a country, be better off if these jobs were being performed in the Caribbean, or in Indonesia, where there was no multiplier effect in terms of consumer spending, taxes being paid and so forth?” asked Cornelius, a leading expert on immigration.

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The conclusions sparked an immediate chorus of disagreement from the growing body of scholars, lawmakers and other experts who favor cutting legal arrivals of new, poorly educated settlers.

“The national economy is demanding more skilled workers, and I don’t see how bringing in more unskilled workers is consistent with that trend,” said George Borjas, a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who has studied immigration.

With Congress showing little inclination to reduce the high overall levels of lawful immigration, much of the debate focuses on whether to give additional priority to more high-skilled applicants. Currently, the vast majority of the about 900,000 new legal immigrants admitted annually arrive without consideration of their skill or educational levels, but gain entry as relatives of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents entitled to petition for loved ones abroad.

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U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who heads the House Immigration Subcommittee, plans to introduce legislation that would give priority to certain immigrants who have at least high-school degrees--a radical departure from current U.S. practice. Canada has such a system.

On a separate track, Congress is considering increasing the ceiling of temporary visas for high-skilled employers.

Findings like those in the new study, say Smith and others, fail to deal with the many downsides of cheap immigrant labor, such as the increased use of benefits and public education and the difficulties posed for less-educated American-born workers, including many Latinos, African Americans and others.

“The number of low-skilled, blue-collar jobs is not increasing very quickly, and the more competition we have for low-skilled Americans the more we end up costing them jobs and depressing their wages,” Rep. Smith said.

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Added Borjas: “When you have a very large group of unskilled workers, and children of unskilled workers, you risk the danger of creating a social underclass in the next century.”

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But another expert said such fears are unfounded. “Inherent to immigration is mobility,” said Gregory Rodriguez, a research fellow at Pepperdine University who conducted a study on Latino immigrant families moving into the middle class. “There is a self-conscious sense on the part of many immigrants to sacrifice so that they’re children will do better.”

In an interview, Cornelius said that U.S. policymakers should focus on improving educational and other opportunities for such low-skilled workers and their children to boost their chances of advancement.

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The study involved 1,169 interviews with employers and workers--both legal and illegal immigrants--from a broad spectrum of businesses in the U.S. and Japanese cities. Most employees interviewed in San Diego were from Mexico. In the case of Hamamatsu, almost half of the workers were so-called Nikkeijin, Brazilian nationals of Japanese ancestry who were working in Japan legally; 17 other nationalities were represented, including Chinese, South Koreans, Filipinos and others.

The study found that the American owners of immigrant-hiring firms, mostly small businesses--and many themselves launched by immigrant entrepreneurs--generally consider immigrants to be harder workers and more reliable than their U.S. counterparts. Native-born workers, the employers said, typically did not last long in jobs that were often low-paid, without benefits or chance of advancement.

The $425,000 study was funded almost entirely by grants from private foundations.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Immigrant-Dominated Jobs

The percentage of immigrant workers has changed dramatically in California since 1980 in the following jobs:

Drywall installer

1996: 48%

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1980: 9%

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Gardener

1996: 66%

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1980: 37%

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Restaurant Cook

1996: 69%

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1980: 29%

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Household Child Care Worker

1996: 58%

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1980: 20%

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Electronics Assembler

1996: 60%

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1980: 37%

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Maid or Houseman

1996: 76%

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1980: 34%

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Farm Worker

1996: 91%

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1980: 58%

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Janitor

1996: 49%

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1980: 26%

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Construction Laborer

1996: 64%

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1980: 20%

Source: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UC San Diego; U.S. Census


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