Mexican Immigrant Workers And The U.S. Economy - An Increasingly Vital Role
One week later, the most horrific acts of terrorism the United States has ever known brought the U.S.-Mexico discussions to a complete halt as America scrambled to address security issues and to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks.
During the months that followed, Congress and the Bush Administration implemented a series of new laws, executive orders, regulations, and other directives that sought to make America safer from future attacks. Yet while these new security provisions were undertaken, the immigration issues facing the United State and Mexico did not disappear. The need to address these issues remains as critical as before, based on the American Immigration Law Foundation's review of recent government data about the impact of Mexican workers on the nation's economy. Among AILF's findings:
America's current immigration policies are antiquated and fail to recognize the importance of Mexican workers to the national economy. A year has now passed since the Bush-Fox visit of 2001. The nation must act to reform immigration laws so that they give the immigration system the integrity to keep Americans safe, while at the same time giving businesses the essential workers they need to succeed. U.S. immigration law must provide ways for Mexican workers to enter and remain in the U.S., in both temporary and permanent status, with protections to assure that they have the dignity and respect they deserve, given the important contributions they make to America. The status quo can no longer be accepted if the United States is to remain the world's leading economy.
The impact of Mexican immigration on the United States has been a major focus of policymakers and the public for well over a decade now. Federal legislation passed in the 1980s and 1990s was directed to a large extent at the perceived impacts of the ongoing arrival of tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. Similarly, local elected officials, members of the news media, and the general public regularly contend with understanding and responding to the movement of Mexican immigrants into communities across the nation.
American employers in a wide variety of industries, however, clearly recognize the value of Mexican immigrant workers. U.S. industry has hired and continues to seek to hire large numbers of Mexican workers due to significant worker shortages in America, fueling a dramatically increased role for Mexican immigrants in the national economy.
In the 1990s alone, the number of Mexican immigrant workers in
the U.S. grew by 2.9 million persons, a 123 percent increase in
this segment of the labor force. In contrast, the overall number
of American workers grew by only 13 percent in the same period.
The owners and managers of factories, restaurants, hotels, construction sites, hospitals, orchards, and innumerable other places of employment have been clear about their need for continued access to immigrant workers, a large portion of whom, statistics show, come from Mexico. Testifying on U.S.-Mexico migration before the U.S. Senate, Thomas J. Donahue, President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce asked "Who will fill the millions of essential worker positions that we will create? Immigration must be one answer." NOTE 1
Other organizations such as the American Health Care
Association, the American Hotel and Motel Association, and the
National Association of Home Builders have written to Congress
in recent years describing businesses who find themselves "with
no applicants of any kind for numerous job openings." They
cite the comments of Alan Greenspan, Chair of the Federal Reserve
Board, that the inflationary pressures caused by a tight
labor market can be alleviated "if we can open up our immigration
rolls significantly." Even in Summer 2002, with well-publicized
declines in the stock market, unemployment in the U.S.
was 5.9 percent in June 2002, still well below unemployment
rates of over 7 percent in the early 1990s. And despite a slight
increase in the unemployment rate, employers still cannot find
sufficient workers in the housing, retail, and service
industries, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting
that 22 million new jobs will be created by 2010, with 70 percent
of those requiring only on-the-job-training.
As citizens of a developing nation, many Mexican immigrants
may have relatively low levels of formal education, but
they have the necessary skills that are compatible with numerous
jobs being created in the U.S. Furthermore, Mexicans experience
pressures to emigration in search of jobs because of high
unemployment in their home country. Under this scenario, Mexican
immigrants are an obvious source of recruits for American
As the Mexican foreign-born population grew in the 1990s, it became an increasingly important part of the U.S. labor force. While Mexican immigrants were 2.0 percent of the U.S. labor force in 1990, by 2000, this had nearly doubled, with Mexican immi grants accounting for 4.0 percent of the U.S. workforce.
Mississippi & Tennessee Among States Benefiting From Access to Mexican American Workers
In 1990, just 3 states -- California, Texas and Illinois -- accounted for about 85 percent of all Mexican immigrant workers. By 2000, however, only some 68 percent of Mexican workers were in those states, and new patterns of immigration had developed, often in areas not traditionally associated with Mexican immigration. NOTE 4
Table 4 shows the remarkable growth of the Mexican labor force in each regional division of the United States during the 1990s. NOTE 5 (These are official Census Bureau regional definitions.) The number of Mexican workers grew by at least 100 percent in 8 of 9 U.S. regions. The number of Mexican workers increased most impressively in the East South Central states of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee, where the population grew by 3,800 percent, adding 112,000 workers to the region's labor force. The West North Central states, stretching from Minnesota and North Dakota down to Missouri and Kansas, saw the Mexican workforce grow by 520 percent. Mexican employees in the South Atlantic regional division, ranging from Delaware to Florida, grew in number by 493 percent.
While the most striking percentage growth in the Mexican labor force tool place in the southeast and in the central part of the nation, the greatest numerical growth occurred in the Pacific states, which added 954,000 Mexican workers in the 1990s. Most of this growth was in California, whose Mexican workforce grew by 864,000. Second to the Pacific states was the West South Central regional division including Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. The region's number of Mexican workers increased by 540,000, with the great majority of the increase in Texas, which added 510,000 Mexican workers.
Need Continues for Secure and Efficient Admission System
Prior to the events of September 11, 2001, President Bush and national policymakers were in the process of devoting substantial resources toward an overhaul of American immigration policies toward Mexico with an eye to facilitating the flow of workers northward. Policy experts debated both an earned adjustment and an improved temporary worker program.
The war on terrorism has temporarily assigned a less urgent
status to the question of American policies toward Mexican
immigration, but the underlying labor needs of U.S. industries
and employers have not fundamentally changed, and many
observers urge renewed attention to Mexican immigration.
Most Mexican workers enter the U.S. under several broad categories. On an ongoing basis, the great majority enter under the family reunification system, some enter via the employment-based visa system, and still others come as temporary workers. (On a one-time basis, a large number of Mexican workers acquired legal permanent residence in the U.S. through the legalization programs of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.)
This results in two aspects of this system giving the appearance of inefficiency. First, the waiting list for immigrants from Mexico to obtain a family-sponsored immigration visa are extremely long, and therefore out of sync with both America's desire to quickly reunite separated families, but also with the evolving needs of American employers. (For example, by the time a bricklayer from Mexico obtains an employment-related visa to immigrate, the need for masons may have diminished.) This kind of inefficiency places pressure on the individual to enter illegally.
Secondly, of the employment categories most accessible to
Mexican American workers, a high percentage is concentrated in
agriculture. Agricultural workers with H2A visas were 43.5
percent of all 1998 Mexican entrants either admitted with
employment-based visas in 1999. Given the data presented earlier
outlining major industries with Mexican American workers, it
seems that current immigration policies may not easily allow
workers to have access to nonagricultural positions for which
there are a significant number of job openings in the U.S.
Maximizing the contributions of Mexican workers can take the form of facilitating the ability of American employers to legally hire needed Mexican workers: to help, as President Bush has said "willing employers to get together with willing employees." NOTE 8 This can be achieved in part by reducing conditions that force employers to unknowingly hire Mexican workers pressured to enter the U.S. illegally to obtain a job. As described earlier, the current system of admissions to the U.S. disfavors Mexican workers in comparison to other immigrants.
The need to increase the number of visas or methods of entry
for Mexican workers is clear. Not only would employers be
less hindered in responding to worker shortages, but the dramatic
human and social consequences of undocumented immigration
would be alleviated. Hardworking, taxpaying Mexican
Americans contribute to our nation's economy, and without access
to them, employers face a more difficult challenge of meeting
their labor needs.
Data from the 2000
Census on Mexican immigrant workers are not yet available, but a
comparable source of information permits us to analyze just how
much the U.S. economy has come to rely on Mexican workers.
During the 12-month period from May 1999 to April 2000 the U.S.
Census Bureau conducted the Census 2000 Supplementary Survey as a
mechanism against which to compare the validity and accuracy of
the actual census. The Census Bureau has recently released data
from the Supplementary Survey that closely parallels information
from the 2000 census. In the following tables, references to
2000 data are in regards to analysis of the Supplementary Survey
data, a data set that contains records of 4,347 Mexican workers
in the employed civilian labor force.
List of U.S. Regional Divisions by State