Friday, December 22, 2006

Low-Wage Workers From Mexico Dominate Latest Great Wave of Immigrants

Published: December 19, 2006
Since the early 1990s, the United States has seen the largest wave of immigration in its history. Of 300 million people now living here, about 37 million were born in another country. Not since the trans-Atlantic rush a century ago have immigrants made up such a large portion of the population.

The new immigrants come from places as far-flung as the Philippines, India, China and El Salvador. But the great wave is dominated by people like Raquel Rodríguez and her sisters: low-wage workers from Mexico. At least one-third of the foreign-born in the United States come from Mexico, census figures show.

When Mrs. Rodríguez moved to Texas 11 years ago as a legal resident, she was lucky to have the best of an American immigration system that is generally agreed to be broken. Proposals for broad changes in the system by President Bush and the Senate met opposition this year from Republicans who favored a crackdown on illegal immigrants. The push for change could resume in the coming months with the new Democratic majority in Congress.

The clearest sign of the system’s dysfunction is that legal permanent residents are no longer the majority of newcomers. Among recent arrivals, legal immigrants are outnumbered by illegal ones who sneaked across a border, or came legally and overstayed their visas. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about 56 percent of illegal immigrants come from Mexico.

The calculation Mexican immigrants make is simple: there are jobs across the border at wages that are much higher than in Mexico. In the United States new Mexican immigrants mostly earn poverty wages by American standards, a median income of only $300 a week, the Pew Hispanic Center reported last year. But that is as much as four times what they would make for similar work at home.

The current United States immigration system, first created by Congress in 1965, is based on family ties, not labor market demand. An American citizen or legal resident can petition a federal agency, Citizenship and Immigration Services, to bring a foreign spouse or children, and citizens can bring their siblings. Employers may also petition for workers, but most of these visas are for professionals with special education and skills. In 2005, only 8 percent of visas were for workers, according to a report in September by an independent bipartisan task force directed by Doris Meissner, a former head of the immigration service. Lawful immigrants receive a document known as a green card, even though the current version is pink.

Most visa categories have numerical caps, limiting their overall annual total to about 675,000 immigrants, and every country has a general limit of about 26,500 visas per year. As a result, the backlog of applications has become unmanageable. With the immigration agency overwhelmed, the process is generally tedious and frustrating. Today, for example, an American citizen seeking to bring a sibling from Mexico faces a wait of 13 years, the task force report found.

While Mexicans are coming in ever larger numbers, their legal avenues have not expanded. One result is that Mexican families often have mixed immigration status. There might, say, be a legal resident mother and an illegal father with children who are American citizens because they were born in the United States.

For Mexican immigrants the ties of family and religious faith are often more compelling than national allegiance. When immigrants first arrive, they rely on relatives already established in this country to give them shelter and steer them to jobs. Mexicans sent back $20 billion last year to aid families at home, the Inter-American Development Bank reported.

Mexicans more than live up to the truism that immigrants work hard. Often they carry more than one job at a time. Their driven work ethic is the unspoken factor in many debates about their impact on the labor market. It can lead them to accept jobs in unacceptable conditions. They run down their health and have little time to spend with their children.

Legal residents have clear advantages over illegal immigrants. While their job possibilities are not vastly different, they can hold driver’s licenses and bank accounts, build credit and receive government medical assistance. A growing proportion of legal immigrants are women.

Mexicans have not always shown a passion for learning English and becoming American citizens. But the accelerating crackdown on illegal immigration made many legal residents feel insecure, prompting hundreds of thousands of applications for citizenship.