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Immigrant Workers Expand US Labor Pool, Despite Objections - 2004-09-21

Recent surveys show many Americans want the nation's doors closed to immigrants. At the same time, President George W. Bush recently proposed an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, which, if approved by the U.S. Congress, would give legal status to an estimated nine million undocumented workers. Under these proposed changes, an undocumented worker would be able to apply for temporary worker status and would be guaranteed employee benefits such as minimum wage.

Many immigration experts have heralded the plan, saying new skilled and unskilled immigrant workers, legal or not, account for 50 percent of the growth of the country's labor force in the past decade. Historian Alan Kraut of American University in Washington, D.C. says recent census data shows that in the past ten years, new immigrants have contributed heavily to the growth of the country's economy. He says immigration is crucial to renewing American society.

"Exclusion and restriction are not desirable," says Mr. Kraut. "The United States has always been a nation of nations, a nation of immigrants. Its strength, economically, culturally and socially, has always been in having a positive attitude toward immigration."

A Northeastern University survey shows that nearly one in four immigrants hold a technical, managerial or professional position in the United States. New York University professor Hasia Diner says it is hardly surprising that educated new immigrants have become a major source for filling the nation's top technical jobs.

"Most migrations are driven by a set of economic realities in their place of origin, which make it possible for some swath of the population to calculate that opportunities are very limited, nearly impossible, if they stay. And that there is this place, the United States, where under the right circumstances, with the right kind of networking and hedging one's bets, the opportunities are pretty good," she says.

California State University history professor Elliott Barkan says skilled immigrants in particular are part of a new class of newcomers. He says these professionals don't need the traditional immigrant network and often forego living in the same immigrant communities, because they tend to be more affluent and have different kinds of connections.

"We're now seeing many differences in terms of social class. So when you ask, 'How well are people fitting in?' We now have a social class factor that is much more pronounced," he explains. "We have immigrants coming in, particularly from India, from Taiwan, and the Philippines who are well educated and who are professionals. They don't go through the same processes of adjustment. They don't have to because they can rely on their skills." Filipinos, for example, practically dominate the nursing field as the largest ethnic group at many hospitals in the New York City area. According to the 2000 Census, 30 percent of the 173,000 Filipinos in New York and the surrounding suburbs work as nurses or other health care professionals. That is four times the rate of other ethnic groups in the city.

American hospitals have been particularly aggressive in recruiting nurses from the Philippines to fill their nursing shortages. U.S. immigration officials have cooperated with hospitals by making it easier for nurses to obtain work visas and resident alien status.

New York University's Hasia Diner says the traditional divide between immigrants and American-born citizens across the country is becoming blurred by the influx of educated professionals.

"Today's immigrants are coming into environments where they don't have to go through the same kinds of twists and turns to prove that they are blending in, fitting in," adds Ms. Diner. "In the past, they felt the need to have a bifurcated life. When they were out in public they were to be every man or every woman, they wanted to be just American. And they had to hide what was ethnically distinctive."

Regardless of skill level, the record number of immigrants entering the United States during the 1990's has transformed the American work force. At the same time, they have prevented population losses in many parts of the country, and are filling labor shortages in the home health care and fast-food industries.

About one million newcomers arrive in the United States each year, mostly from Latin America and Asia. And by the year 2030, it is estimated that one out of four Americans will be of either Hispanic or Asian origin.