As US nears milestone, a rising mix of immigrants
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"It certainly has resulted in the importation of labor substitutes for a wide variety of American workers, with the result that we're widening the wage gap for less skilled workers who've seen real wages declining," says Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington. "Substitutes erode bargaining leverage and decrease offered wages. Supply and demand works here as everywhere else."Skip to next paragraph
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Even the number of illegal immigrants is in dispute. About 30 percent of immigrants – an estimated 11 million – are here illegally, according to most government and private sources. That figure is believed to be growing by some 500,000 a year, according to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service).
But one research team posited last year that as many as 20 million illegal immigrants may be living in the US today. Robert Justich and Betty Ng of Bear Stearns, a global investment banking, securities trading, and brokerage firm, based their conclusion on a study of public school enrollment, language-proficiency programs, building permits, and the significant amount of money being sent home by undocumented workers.
One of their conclusions: "Four [million] to six million jobs have shifted to the underground market as small businesses take advantage of the vulnerability of illegal residents."
There's another kind of vulnerability as well. In an investigative report this month, the Chicago Tribune found that illegal immigrants face disproportionate injuries and fatalities – often unreported – doing hazardous jobs like meat-cutting and dry-cleaning.
About half the total US population increase these days is Hispanic, according to the US Census Bureau, making Hispanics the largest and fastest-growing racial or ethnic minority. Part of that rise is children born to Hispanics already in the country. The rest comes from immigration. Fifty-seven percent of those newcomers are from Mexico, and another 24 percent are from other Latin American countries, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.
On average, Hispanics in the US are considerably younger than the population as a whole: Their median age is about 27 compared with about 36 for the country generally. That means that as older non-Hispanics retire, there will be relatively more workers to pay into Social Security. It also means more Hispanics in the future. About one-third of them are under 18 – just entering the years when they'll have children of their own.
"People come for a place to raise their kids, where there's a future," says Marcel Cueva, a Lawrenceville cab driver who came from the Dominican Republic 18 years ago and recently became a US citizen.
"Other places like New York have become too expensive," says Mr. Cueva, who has four children and soon may be joined here by his father. "You can make money, but the money is gone. Here you can keep some of it."
The fact that the US has recently become home to an extraordinary number of immigrants also may indicate a new direction for the country as it moves on toward 400 million people, probably sometime in the middle of the century.
"It says that we're going to be a country that is more outwardly reaching to the rest of the world, that we'll be more multicultural than we've been in the recent past," says William Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
• Next Tuesday: The environmental imprint of 300 million.