Feature - Fall/Winter 2007

PRINTER FRIENDLY VERSION

 

A year of national soul-searching and political debate over immigration reform appears to have sputtered to an inconclusive end. That should have been no surprise. Since the 1800s, Americans have agonized and argued heatedly, with mixed results, over whom to let in, whom to keep out and how to proceed fairly. Today, a number of Notre Dame faculty and alumni are key players in the immigration saga. Some are researchers, analysts and scholars. Others are on the front lines as employers, educators, lawyers, theologians or advocates.

By Gregg Ramshaw

The Researchers

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that there were between 11.5 million and 12 million unauthorized migrants living in the United States in 2006, up substantially from 8.4 million in 2000. More than three-quarters of these migrants come from Mexico or Central America .

Professor Jeff Bergstrand

From a global perspective, migrant workers are simply a form of investment in search of a return. Economists including Finance Professor Jeffrey Bergstrand see labor as one of the “factor flows” of the global economy. Labor, like capital or trade, seeks the best rate of return and flows to it, provided distance or law are not barriers.

“Our economy has been growing rapidly, and we are in a tight labor market,” says Bergstrand, an expert on global economics and finance. “With the unemployment rate at 5 percent, which is basically full employment, businesses need workers and that's why they are welcoming some of the illegal immigration.”

While forecasts point to a continuous and rising demand for highly skilled immigrants in many sectors of the U.S. economy, the demand for low-skilled immigrants will depend on cyclical economic patterns and could taper off if the economy cools down, he adds.

But do undocumented workers take jobs away from native-born workers? Economists argue that both ways, says Bergstrand. Immigrants do compete with native-born workers for jobs on the lower economic rung. But they also spend money, which creates more jobs in a growing economy.

“Undocumented migrants account for only about one in 20 workers, so they are not a huge share of the United States labor market,” says Bergstrand. “But they are a much higher share of the low-skilled labor market, maybe as high as 15 or 20 percent in certain jobs.”

Undocumented workers commonly take jobs as day laborers, dishwashers, hotel maids, drywall hangers and caregivers for the elderly in assisted living and nursing homes.

Professor Timothy Ready

Another consideration is the impact of unskilled immigrant workers on wage structures. Competition from immigrant labor is one aspect of a larger globalization process that is contributing to wage stagnation for low-skilled American workers, says Timothy Ready, director of research for Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies.

“The influx of low-wage workers from Latin America is enabling a lot of producers in segments of the economy to continue producing competitively, when they might not otherwise be able to do that because of (foreign) competition,” says Ready. “But American workers are losing ground, particularly low-skilled workers.” He points to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau which shows the median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation.

Bergstrand says surveys show that 60 to 80 percent of American workers feel at risk of being unable to improve their standard of living, fueling the current wave of anti-immigration sentiment. He claims the widening disparity between rich and poor, skilled and unskilled, is responsible for the declining sense of well-being among middle- and lower middle-class workers.

Looking into the future, both Bergstrand and Ready say the U. S. economy is remarkably adaptable and historically has grown to absorb new immigrant populations into the workforce.

“Forty-five years ago, the unemployment rate was also 5 percent,” says Bergstrand. “Since then, we've had huge immigration, increases in trade and a globalizing economy. Yet today, the unemployment rate is still 5 percent. We've managed it because the U.S. economy adjusts.”

Ready also points to evidence that Latino migrants are making economic progress, including a rise in home ownership.

That said, both Ready and Bergstrand believe that structural changes in the global economy will cause increasing adjustments and displacements for American low-skilled workers, and that low-skilled immigrant workers and their children may be particularly vulnerable to economic disruption in the years ahead.

“The people who migrate are entrepreneurial. They're go-getters, ambitious,” says Ready, an anthropologist who has extensively studied Latino immigrants. “But their kids may not all have the same drive.” For the next generation to make economic progress, he continues, “it's particularly important that we focus on the education of these kids so that they don't get stuck and can move up the (employment) ladder.”


In recent reports, Ready and his colleagues at the Institute for Latino Studies have advocated a number of measures to foster economic growth in immigrant communities, including expanded GED preparation, English courses and job training programs. They also recommend that future economic policy concentrate on teaching business literacy, including technical assistance and basic financial education, to help ensure the long-term success of fledgling entrepreneurial activities.

Do we need continued immigration? “Absolutely,” says Bergstrand. “This country is built on immigration. It's our history. We shouldn't even question it. This is the highest per capita income country in the world of standard developed economies. Why? We've embraced free flows of goods, of capital and labor. Immigration is at the core of globalization that we have benefited from.”

Source on all: Pew Hispanic Center tabulations of augmented March 2005 Current Population Survey, adjusted for omissions.

 

* * *

The Farmers

Traditionally, Hispanic immigrants have played a central role in agriculture, providing the planting and picking labor. Farmers need them, in some cases, desperately.

Todd and Russell Costanza

Todd Costanza (ND '01) and his father Russell don't hide their frustration over the twists and turns the immigration issue has taken this year, ever since President Bush placed it at the forefront of his domestic agenda. Todd and his sister Lisa are heirs to Russ' 500-acre produce business, Costanza Farms, which is located in Sodus , Mich. , about 40 minutes from Notre Dame campus.

“Their future is more at stake than mine,” says Russ. The family's $3 million enterprise employs more than 100 migrant pickers and farm hands between April and October.

“Every season we start from scratch,” says Todd. “Vegetables are a risky business. Sometimes we may not even pick a crop if we're not going to return enough money on it.”

Any restrictive changes in federal law or immigration regulations threaten the Costanzas' livelihood. Russ Costanza is active in the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE) and travels to Washington to lobby on behalf of his fellow farm producers. He speaks of a shifting maze of contradictory federal regulations that have dogged his business since he began operating the family farm back in the late 1970s. He pulls no punches.

“Politicians are dumber than these things,” he grumbles, pointing at stakes of red plum tomatoes. “They only care about getting re-elected.”

He adds that those who complain about immigrants often don't want to take these jobs themselves. He backs up this remark by saying that although the county unemployment office has occasionally referred local workers to the farm, these native-born Americans have never shown up for work.

“Migrants have a strong work ethic,” Russ adds. “This is hard work, bending over in the fields planting or picking from May to September.”

“We can't hire illegal aliens, but if they present documents that appear legitimate, we can't discriminate against them, either,” Russ says. “Every employee I have says he or she is here legally, but I figure some of them are not. We have to examine their documents and accept them at ‘face value.' That's what the law says.”

He says he turns away six to eight people a year whose documents are inadequate.

Farmers such as the Costanzas want a realistic guest worker program and an open border policy that allows migrants to work in the United States and either live here or return home, with a controlled flow of labor back and forth across the border. Russ says the existing federal seasonal agriculture worker program (H-2A) is cost prohibitive, requiring hourly wages of $9.34 plus add-ons such as travel expenses to make immigrants $14- to $15-an-hour laborers. Other farmers seem to share his view. According to the NCAE, the H-2A program supplies only about 2 percent of the 1.6 million farmworkers needed each year.

Russ says he competes primarily with large produce growers in Mexico , who raise quality vegetables at a sliver of the labor cost here. “The minimum wage in Mexico is the equivalent of $4.35 a day. I'm paying on average $8.08 per hour. This year, it's going up to $9 an hour, and I throw in their housing, which, by the way, has to meet the standards of Michigan state inspectors,” he points out.

He says most of his employees make $8,000 to $11,000 in three months of hard work. He estimates they can double or triple their earnings if they follow the growing and harvesting seasons from the southern states to the north and back again. Many of his workers move on to Georgia for six more weeks of work in the fall.

* * *

The NAFTA Researcher

Professor Juan Rivera

Accountancy Professor Juan Rivera views the immigration issue through the eyes of farmers on the other side of the border. He has studied extensively how sectors of the Mexican farm economy have fared since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed in 1994. The treaty lowered trade barriers between Canada , Mexico and the United States .

Rivera says the majority of small Mexican farmers have historically grown staple crops, such as corn. These farmers are losing out to U.S. agribusinesses that can sell these crops at a lower price, even in Mexico . And because the manufacturing sector in Mexico has not grown fast enough to absorb these displaced farmers, growing numbers of them seek to cross the border where they easily can earn three, four or five times the income they can scratch out in their own country.

On the other hand, Rivera says large and medium-sized farm producers in Mexico are competing successfully with U.S. farmers in certain niche agricultural areas that are labor intensive, such as the production of many fruits and vegetables.

To address the plight of rural Mexican farmers, Rivera helped initiate a program which brings together Notre Dame MBA students with their counterparts from the University of Guadalajara, Mexico. These students work with small and medium-sized Mexican farm producers to improve business operations and learn entrepreneurship skills.

While Rivera contends that there are no easy solutions to immigration issues, he believes that government resources would be much better spent on efforts to support long-term economic development in Mexico rather than in building a fence at the border.

“You can tell immigrants not to come, and you can put the biggest, widest barrier, and they're going to circumvent that,” he says. “They'll come by boat. If they're desperate, they'll keep risking their lives to get here.”

* * *

The Manufacturer

Although many Hispanic immigrants come from rural villages and towns, the vast majority of them bypass farm work once in the United States and go directly to urban settings, often because relatives, friends or neighbors have gone before them and found jobs and living arrangements.

Arthur R. Velasquez

The employees of Arthur R. Velasquez (ND '60) are good examples of the latter. Velasquez is the owner and CEO of Azteca Foods, Inc., in Chicago, the maker of Azteca brand soft flour and corn tortillas and crisp tortilla chips. “Ethnic foods,” he calls them, but they're ethnic foods that have become very mainstream. Every time you order a wrap, you are supporting Velasquez and his competitors.

Azteca Foods has what could be called a “mature, former-immigrant” work force of 150 employees—80 to 90 percent of them of Hispanic ancestry. Some have been with the company for 20 to 30 years. They hold permanent positions and must be documented per federal law. The company requires them to have a background check and a medical exam in order to work in food manufacturing.

When the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform bill was passed and signed into law by President Reagan 20 years ago, it provided amnesty for many undocumented immigrants already in this country. Velasquez says he hired lawyers to help undocumented workers at Azteca adjust their status to take advantage of the law's provisions.

“The immigrant workforce has been the backbone of the growth of our labor needs for the last 30, 40 years,” says Velasquez, adding that the need is not going to go away, especially as baby boomers retire. “If you don't have a young workforce, where are you going to get the money to support the aging workforce who are going to be drawing from Social Security?”

On top of that, he says many immigrants are entrepreneurial and eager to start their own enterprises. “Now you have the second generation going into and building their own businesses,” he adds.

A recent report from the Institute for Latino Studies corroborates this trend, citing data that shows that Latino-owned businesses have increased 44 percent in Chicago between 1997 and 2002. Common start-up businesses include small restaurants, ethnic food stores and service businesses located in growing Hispanic neighborhoods.

The current politics of immigration don't sit very well with Velasquez. As a second generation Mexican American, he's proud of his people and their achievements, including their growth rate. As for the anti-immigrant movement: “Various kinds of people get all shook up about it because they say, ‘Wait a minute, this is our society and it's going to change dramatically.' Yes, it is,” he says. “If you look at Chicago and if you add it up, by 2030, the white population is going to be in the minority, and people are afraid of that.”

* * *

The Lawyer

An August New York Times article reported that Indiana has become a destination for many Hispanic immigrants, who bypass “gateway” states such as California and Texas and go directly to where they have contacts and job opportunities. The U.S. Census Bureau calculated the state had a 34 percent increase in its immigrant population in the last five years. A number have been drawn to the recreational vehicle manufacturing plants in Elkhart County .

Rodolfo Monterrosa Jr.

Attorney Rodolfo Monterrosa Jr. (JD '01) has built a bustling law practice representing immigrants in northern Indiana in the five years since he graduated from law school. He accepts appointments as a public defender for Spanish-speaking suspects in criminal cases and handles so-called “adjustment of status” cases.

“The factories around here recruit from Mexico ,” he says. “The companies look the other way at the documents their workers present. And when the individual gets caught, he's on his own.”

Considering that more than 7 million undocumented workers are believed to be employed in this country, enforcement efforts with employers do seem minimal.

The federal agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), announced it had made 445 criminal arrests of employers of the undocumented in the first half of this year resulting in the deportation of 2,700 immigrant workers. The son of immigrants (a Mexican mother and a Salvadoran father), Monterrosa grew up in southern California . In Indiana , he has found that unauthorized immigrants who transgress the law are treated differently in the two counties where he practices. In St. Joseph County , for example, a misdemeanor conviction will not typically be reported to ICE, whereas in Elkhart County , it will. He is most often called on to defend immigrants who have committed traffic misdemeanors, such as driving having never received a valid license.

Monterrosa says the U.S. immigration system is in shambles. It does not provide enough visas for workers or for families to be reunited. A Mexican wife must wait seven years for a visa to join her husband here, he says, noting that many relationships crumble after four or five years of continuous absence. Spouses who don't return home because they can't get back into the United States may acquire second families here.

Currently, there are 140,000 visas available annually for foreign workers, including the highly skilled ones. “We have a flood of illegal immigrants, because we don't have a realistic system for legal immigration,” he says. “The number of work visas is unreasonably low, and the vast majority of people come here to work.”

* * *

The School Administrators

 

Melissa Earls

Educating non-native language speakers is not easy. Melissa Earls (ND '96), assistant superintendent of Mendon-Upton Regional School District , located in suburban Boston , confronts this challenge on a regular basis. The district has extensive English Language Learners programs, and Earls also works with some of its foreign-born teachers, who struggle to pass state licensing exams in order to teach in the district's innovative Spanish language programs.

“Oftentimes, students and teachers speak very well and are naturally bright,” she says. “But when they read something, or compose a story or write, they lag behind. So they do not test well.”

Earls has found that it takes time to improve writing skills, but that many adult learners can succeed by enrolling in language and test-taking preparation courses offered at state colleges and universities. Often what these adults need most, she says, is help in navigating through educational and government bureaucracies so they can take advantage of available resources.

But Earls also finds that many immigrant Latino families simply do not value higher education the way other cultures do. “If they can secure a steady paycheck and help the family, that's what they aspire to,” says Earls. “We're located in Boston 's tech corridor. We're working with these parents to see the changing nature of our economy, that future jobs in technology and biotech will call for education levels beyond secondary school. They aren't there yet.”

Recent economic forecasts corroborate a trend toward a more highly skilled U.S. workforce. A Bureau of Labor Statistics report said that occupations requiring a postsecondary vocational certificate or an academic degree, which accounted for 29 percent of all jobs in 2000, will account for 45 percent of total job growth from 2000 to 2010.

Tony Ortiz

Tony Ortiz ('98, M.Ed '00) is associate principal of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School , in Chicago . He calls the school an oasis in the heart of gang turf on the city's near southwest side. It's also a place of hope for 500 potentially at-risk students.

Those attending Cristo Rey enter with average academic credentials. But unlike their peers throughout the country, almost all will go on to graduate from high school and attend college. In doing so, they are bucking tremendous odds, since the high school dropout rate for Hispanic students in the United States is four times the rate of white students.

“Students can get lost in the system, and then gangs become an attractive option,” Ortiz says. “They can provide easy money, quite a bit of pocket money for kids their age. Gang membership becomes a quick fix, a nice alternative to the present day reality of not having money, of having to go to school. But gangs are dangerous.”

Cristo Rey students go to school four days a week and work in the offices of blue chip Chicago companies on the fifth day, earning the tuition for this parochial school and gaining access to the white-collar workplace. Because of their employment, students must be documented, even if their parents are not. “Many of our students' parents were born in Mexico , but the students were born here,” Ortiz notes. He is of Mexican ancestry, born in El Paso , Texas , as were his parents.

“I've thought about every immigrant class that has come through the United States , whether it be Eastern European, Italian, Irish, and they all benefited from education,” says Ortiz. “It's education that helped close the cultural gap and the achievement gap. And if we don't educate this wave of immigrants, then they are not going to be able to contribute to this country like previous waves.”

 

—Gregg Ramshaw is a Pittsburgh-based writer and video producer. For more than 30 years, he worked in television news in Washington , D.C. , and was a managing producer of The NewsHour on PBS.

* * *

The Theologian

The Human Cost of Immigration

By Daniel Groody, CSC (ND '86)

Immigration is a complex issue that is reshaping the cultural, economic and political landscape of the planet. Anyone who speaks of simple solutions either does not understand the subject or is not listening. Each group in the immigration debate makes rightful claims to issues such as “economic stability,” “American jobs,” “cultural integrity,” “fiscal constraints,” “national security,” “human rights,” “property rights,” “labor rights,” “law and order” and many others. People are divided over immigration precisely because it creates fault lines between many values that are important to us. Finding common ground amidst the fractious debate is not easy, which is the reason why it has become such an incendiary political issue.

Catholic social teaching helps sort out the complexity, and it begins by stating that the moral health of any society is gauged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Asserting that the economy is made for human beings and not human beings for the economy, Catholic teaching argues that all human beings have the right to work. It maintains that human beings are entitled to opportunities for employment in their homeland, and when jobs are not available, they have the right to migrate. In their search for survival and more dignified lives, the teaching states that people are entitled to move, even to other countries if necessary. At the same time, the teaching respects the right of nations. It acknowledges that countries have a right to protect their borders, even though this is not an absolute right, because it is subordinate to the common good of the whole human family.

At its core, Catholic social teaching advocates for the integrity of the family. It believes that if people must migrate, families should stay together, especially since the family is the most basic cell of society. Lastly, it values human dignity. Because human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, the teaching strives to protect the worth and value of every human being. Through these principles, Catholic social teaching offers a moral vision that can help guide decision-making amidst the complexity of immigration. It does so in light of a fundamental belief in a God of life and a fundamental conviction that the economy must be ordered more according to the needs of people rather than profit margins.

The nexus of the tension today is not only between the United States and Mexico , but between national security and human insecurity, civil law and natural law, and citizenship and discipleship. Nonetheless, the complexity becomes easier to sort out when looked at from the perspective of the least significant ones in society. Since new border policies were put in place in 1994, one immigrant has died each day trying to make the dangerous crossing from Mexico to the United States . More than 4,000 immigrants have lost their lives crossing canals, mountains and deserts in search of jobs that only the most desperate would want.

According to the Associated Press, an immigrant also dies each day in the workplace, even while the U.S. workplace grows safer overall. They die cutting North Carolina tobacco and butchering Nebraska beef, chopping down trees in Colorado and falling from scaffolding in Georgia , welding a balcony in Florida and trimming grass in Las Vegas .

These disturbing statistics help us recognize that what often gets lost in the immigration debate are the profound human issues at stake and the extensive human costs. As a country of immigrants, and as a pilgrim people of faith, this debate also raises probing questions about our response to those most in need and its costs to the life and soul of our nation.

—Rev. Daniel Groody, CSC (ND '86) is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Notre Dame and the Director of the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture. He is the author of Border of Death, Valley of Life and Globalization, Spirituality and Justice (forthcoming), and the executive producer of the video Dying to Live: A Migrant's Journey ( www.dyingtolive.nd.edu ).

 

 

 

 

 
 
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