The United States has once again become a magnet for millions of men and women from around the globe. A century ago, the U.S. willingly opened its doors to legions of immigrants. Today, those with highly sought-after skills are the ones receiving the warm welcome. But that has not quelled the rush of unskilled immigrants pouring through U.S. borders in the past decade.
When Europeans cast their fortunes toward America 100 years ago, they said goodbye to their loved ones, never to return. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who came to America at the turn of the 20th century, today's newcomers are mainly from Latin America and Asia.
Now, in the high-tech age of cellular phones and the Internet, immigrants no longer sever ties to their homelands. But unlike a century ago, there is a widening gulf between educated immigrants and those untrained workers who may find the U.S. job market an uninviting place.
Roger Waldinger, a sociologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, says that mass migration is a recurring cycle. But he says there has been a steady shift away from a long-standing U.S. policy of admitting refugees who simply hope to build better lives for themselves.
"In many ways, the salient characteristic of the current era is the revival of large-scale immigration. But it is immigration in a restricted immigration regime," he explains. "That is, the goal of policy is to keep people out. One of the consequences of that policy is the creation of a totally new group of immigrants, one we never saw before, that is to say the unauthorized, or illegal, or undocumented immigrants."
U.S. immigration officials estimate there are nine million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
Elliott Barkan, a retired professor of history and ethnic studies at California State University in San Bernardino, says these are mostly unskilled people who make their way to the United States. But he says they often find themselves struggling to find work in today's high-tech service economy.
"We are now in a post-industrial stage and you've got people having to come up with other alternatives," says Mr. Barkan. "Some industries survive like the garment industry in Los Angeles, even in New York, because of the immigrants who are here. But in other cases, that job opportunity syndrome isn't there, and in that sense, it is harder."
U.S. census numbers show that 20 percent of new or illegal immigrants eventually return home. But Professor Barkan notes that many more take their chances and stay in the United States. He says the changing nature of America's economy has forced many unskilled immigrants to venture away from popular immigrant hubs such as New York and Los Angeles in search of work. He says this pattern of fanning out across the country is easily seen among Mexican immigrants, who are among the country's largest group of undocumented workers.
"The single most remarkable pattern since 1990 are Mexicans moving into the deep South, into Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Arkansas," he notes. "Mexicans are now working in Hawaii. This is remarkable, for those of us who've been tracking Mexican migration into the Midwest or to the Southwest, to see Mexicans now as the major labor force in Florida, in Georgia, in North Carolina, in Alabama. "
Professor Barkan says immigrants venture to places where they hope to re-create the livelihoods they had in their home countries, though some fare better than others.
"The classic example is the South Vietnamese shrimpers who went to Texas, because they could then resume shrimp fishing," he adds. "Or you find Mung [from Northern Thailand] in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Why would a Mung go to Wisconsin or Minnesota? They go with the farming."
Others join what is often called the country's invisible workforce, those working at high-turnover, low-wage jobs, says New York University professor Hasia Diner. She says many of these workers are unskilled immigrant women, and they find life in America particularly tough.
"Nowadays what you see is a not-insignificant part of the migration looking for jobs like nannies," she says. "This is a women's migration, women from Central America. Many of the women who appear to us as 'undocumented,' working as caregivers, eldercare, child-care done in private homes. Therefore, it falls under the radar of the bureaucracy with jobs that pay in cash."
Professor Diner says immigrant domestic workers play a major role in America's service economy. But she says they lack the legal, social or financial resources of legitimate visa-holders.
"These women do not go into jobs that ever get recorded, they don't get into jobs that are listed," she explains. "This is, in fact, exactly what much of the contemporary migration is, people working who are not producing goods, but are performing a service."
New immigrants account for 50 percent of the growth of the country's labor force between 1990 and 2001. At least a third are women, according to a recent study of immigrant workers by Boston's Northeastern University. The study credits immigrants with expanding the U.S. pool of workers available for jobs in home health care and fast-food jobs.