We have all heard the statement that immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, come to this country to take American jobs from the citizenry. But, exactly how true is that statement? What is the reality of the employment landscape when talking about those who live in this country without documentation?
According to Ernesto Castaneda-Tinoco, a professor of sociology at American University, for this issue to be understood one must first look at immigration as a whole and analyze why people initially decide to leave their native home.
“The working class migrants and immigrants come from poor backgrounds, mostly Latino, and work in low paying jobs — typically, if undocumented, under the table in the service industry,” Castaneda-Tinoco said in an interview. “[Immigrants] are lucky if they make the minimum wage, typically they make much less. Which is a problem when the D.C. metropolitan area is a very expensive place to live.”
The Latin American Immigrant
The majority of documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States and in the D.C. metropolitan area come from Latin American countries, in D.C the majority from El Salvador with around 270,000 recorded in the 2015 census. So, when talking about the employment landscape for immigrants in D.C., it can be assumed that we are discussing the landscape for Latino immigrants in the District.
The stereotype that immigrants come to take away American jobs or live off the government is simply inaccurate, according to Castaneda-Tinoco.
“Migration from Latin America since the 1960s has been by people, for the most part, that come to work and to do more work,” Castaneda-Tinoco said.
Most Latino immigrants do not use social services, even if they have the right to do so. This is largely due to fear of how accepting benefits could affect attempts to gain citizenship, according to Castaneda-Tinoco. “Simply put, foreign-born Latinos underuse government resources, not abuse them,” he said.
According to Castaneda-Tinoco it was believed to be the duty of churches to provide food, shelter and help to those in need. However, with the growth of capitalism and industrialization there was a higher demand for labor and this led to the creation of “Poor Laws,” that made it a crime to be an unemployed, yet able bodied man.
These laws led to the Hobo movement in the United States, which saw people refusing to work and instead traveled across the U.S. trading labor in hours for food and shelter. This was the beginning of modern day labor.
This way of life is still often seen today in the Latino immigrant population, especially following the recession in 2008.
“They struggle, they hustle,” said Eva Maria Chavez of the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles, when talking about Latino immigrants. Referring to their ability to find alternative means for income, such as doing day labor.
A study conducted by Castaneda-Tinoco, Jonathan D. Klassen and Curtis Smith found that among Hispanics and Latinos within the homeless community, about 41 percent reported a source of income compared to 17 percent of non-Hispanic and non-Latino homeless individuals. This was partially explained by the prevalence of day laborers and agricultural work among Hispanic and Latino respondents.
“There is a demand for day labor in this country. Very badly paid, but there is a demand. So, immigrants are able to find these jobs typically,” Castaneda-Tinoco said. “It’s not because they are better workers or better people, but there is niche employment for them.”
The Trump Era
However, there have been changes to the employment landscape for Latino immigrants, partially due to the Trump administration.
“[Immigrants] will be hidden because they don’t want to be deported,” Chavez said.
But it is not only undocumented immigrants that are more reluctant to disregard the law now with President Donald Trump in the White House, employers too are fearful.
According to Janethe Peña, executive director of D.C. Doors, all job applicants must go through a system known as E-Verify in order to get employment. This system allows an employer to see if an applicant’s Social Security number matches their name and if they have a valid U.S. work permit.
Without E-Verify clearance, one cannot be legally employed in the United States.
“The rules are not as lax anymore. Before, during the Obama administration, not everyone was really implementing E-Verify,” Peña said. “But now, with Trump, E-Verify is really happening. People are getting checked. So it’s becoming very hard to find employment.”
Chavez sees the issue as the increasing barriers put in place in order to be able to secure a job and not that there are not enough jobs for everyone.
“Undocumented immigrants believe in the American Dream, they have this hope that if they work hard they will make it. They also know that it takes time,” Castaneda-Tinoco said.