Many Immigrants Are Here by Our Choice

Washington, D.C., Latinos are a case in point

IT'S natural to want to have things both ways. But when it comes to immigration, we should guard against the tendency to believe that we can. The recent influx of Central Americans into the nation's capital highlights some of the paradoxes in our attitudes on immigration.

Thirty or 40 years ago there was no sizeable Latino community in Washington, nor was the city a preferred destination for immigrant workers from third-world countries.

But in the 1960s and '70s, when more and more American women wished to enter the labor force and began casting about for adequate child-care, there was none to be found. African-American women were fleeing domestic service in droves because it was among the lowest-paid and most stigmatized job categories. While 37.5 percent of African-American women did private household work in 1960, by 1989 this figure had plummeted to 3.5 percent. Yet in the 1980s and '90s, Washington claimed the nation's highest proportion of women in the wage-labor force (currently at 69 percent).

Women from El Salvador and Guatemala filled this labor vacuum, many upon the invitation of diplomats and congressmen, State Department employees, and other government professionals. From the 1950s, the US State Department and Agency for International Development sent thousands of US families to Central American countries to implement such programs as the Alliance for Progress. After their tours of duty were finished, many of these families returned to Washington with nannies and household staff. That pattern was duplicated by thousands of foreign professionals when they gravitated to Washington with burgeoning agencies like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the Organization of American States.

In interviews with hundreds of Central Americans in Washington, I found that 70 percent of the initial immigrants in each person's family who migrated before 1980 were recruited to work there. One woman, for example, worked as a housekeeper for a USAID family when they were stationed in San Salvador. They invited her to work for them in Washington upon their return, and this woman spawned a mini migration that funnelled 35 members of her extended family into the Washington area over ensuing decades. Several other women were recruited from Guatemala by families that worked for the World Bank.

When wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala sped the departure of hundreds of thousands of men and women in the 1980s, many emigrants already had a relative living in Washington, Los Angeles, or Houston. Word spread quickly that the highest-paying jobs were to be found in the nation's capital, and employers enticed immigrant workers there to staff restaurants and cleaning or construction crews. The influx of foreign workers dovetailed with an explosive growth in the Washington-area economy. The city experienced chronic labor shortages for a number of years, with unemployment rates as low as 2.9 percent in the District of Columbia in 1988 and 1.9 percent in several of the surrounding suburbs.

A construction boom generated jobs in such profusion that employers were forced to recruit workers from other states or hire new arrivals through Latino social networks. More than 3,000 Hispanic-owned businesses operating in the area by 1989 contributed to the rapidly expanding job markets for new immigrants.

A panoply of employers thrive on this immigrant labor force. My interviews with owners or managers of 75 Washington-based businesses - primarily restaurants and construction or cleaning firms - revealed that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 failed to deter immigrants from flocking to US cities. Within six months of its enactment, undocumented immigrants and their employers in the nation's capital were devising ways to circumvent the law.

THESE are some of the neglected aspects of the immigration debate. We tend to forget how interference in other countries - such as backing entrenched regimes and financing wars in Central America - promotes emigration; how exporting assembly and manufacturing jobs overseas creates an Americanized work force; how disseminating American movies, music, and ads along with ideas about democracy and free markets inculcates a global American dream. We think nothing of inviting citizens of other countries here to tend our children, clean our bathrooms, pick vegetables, or haul away garbage.

We are reluctant to clasp the hands of those who perform the work that Americans shun. Yet in a crowded world and at center stage, we can't always insist on having it both ways.

Immigration is one of this country's founding principles and not an election-year political football. If we wish to embrace the role of a global leader and the benefits of a global marketplace, we must sculpt policies that affirm our historical legacy and reflect our global responsibilities.

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