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Western civilization could undoubtedly withstand the dirty autos and unkempt lawns that would result if all the immigrant car washers and yard men were eliminated. But there are some consumer-surplus-generated jobs that have more impact on American lives.
"I've had four nannies for my kids, and every single one has been an illegal alien," says Amy, a Washington architect. "The first one was British. The second was from Sierra Leone. There was one from Peru, and the one we have now is a Salvadoran. Every time, I've put an ad in the paper, but I've never interviewed a single American for the job. I'm not sure I've even gotten a response from an American."
Amy pays $6.00 an hour to her nanny, well over minimum wage. "But I'm not terribly surprised that Americans aren't interested in the job," she says. "Taking care of children is hard work. There's no harder work in the world. It's physically difficult and emotionally tough. Children are demanding. You have to keep them clean. Changing diapers is not too much fun. And children can be real bratty. I know my 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter can be a terrible brat. And that's very difficult when you have no blood relationship with them. Also, you've got to keep an eye on them at all times, and if there's more than one, you have to be in more than one place at all times."
As hard as the work is, Amy says that paying significantly more than $6.00 an hour wouldn't make economic sense to her. "I'd probably just quit and stay home, taking care of them myself," she says.
Across the country in San Francisco, her words are echoed by journalist Sharon Noguchi, who recently went back to work after having a baby. She went to a resource center where babysitters register and took down 50 names. All but one turned out to be immigrants. She eventually hired a Salvadoran.
"It's the same for all my friends," Noguchi says. "I'm not sure that wages are the whole story, either. I'm paying $7.00 an hour plus taxes and Social Security, and some of my friends are even paying for health insurance. But Americans just don't apply for the jobs. I think it also has to do with the nature of the work. The hours are odd and somewhat irregular, and there's no future in it--you work a couple of years and then get laid off when the children are older. That's just not desirable work."
Like Amy, Noguchi says that if there were no immigrants working in child care, she would probably have to quit her job and stay home with her baby. "So would a lot of other mothers like me," she declares. "There are a lot of women like me, women who work not because they have to, but because they like to. We're the people who will be the losers."
So will a lot of Americans who work in the garment industry. Perhaps no other U.S. industry is more intimately linked to immigrants than the rag trade. The ready-to-wear industry was founded in New York in the 1880s, when Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe provided most of the labor. As they moved out of production and into management and ownership, they were succeeded by a wave of new Italian immigrants. As European immigration dried up in the 1930s, Puerto Ricans and southern blacks took over the production floors. In the 1960s, Chinese and other Asians poured into the garment factories. These days the jobs are done by new Chinese arrivals along with recent immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean.
"The second generation never stays," says Muzaffar Chisti, the director of the Immigration Project of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. (Though Indian-born, he's a U.S. citizen.) "We have clearly seen a recurring phenomenon, the replacement of one set of workers by another. But it's a replacement, not a displacement....One group of immigrants moves up and out, and another takes its place. That's the whole promise of America.
"That's the whole interesting thing about this immigration debate. Immigration is such a great bargain for this country. Immigrants come to work in what economists call the secondary sectors of the market. The primary sector is the prized jobs, the ones with good wages and upward mobility. The secondary sector is the jobs with low wages, harsh discipline, low mobility. Those are the ones the immigrants take. They do it with the clear promise that it's going to be a better deal for their kids. And it is. The kids of our Chinese immigrants go to Ivy League schools in prodigious numbers."
In some cases it doesn't take a full generation for immigrants to succeed in their new life. Many of the Chinese who arrived in the garment factories in the mid-1960s have already worked their way in the managerial and entrepreneurial classes. "There are 500 to 600 Chinese-owned garment companies in New York," notes Chisti. "In 1960, there were just five. They employ 30,000 workers." Their payroll is more than $200 million.
Anti-immigrant activists would retort, no doubt, that most of those 30,000 jobs go to other immigrants rather than Americans. That's undoubtedly true. But many jobs generated by the garment industry are held by native-born Americans. Packagers, truckers, mid-level managers, and wholesale workers are mostly natives. So are people in countless other jobs that were created by the garment industry, from the assembly-line workers in the plants where sewing machines are built to the pink-collar staffs of the designers who cluster near the garment factories. A 1985 Urban Institute study of the garment industry in Los Angeles, the country's second-biggest, concluded that without Mexican immigrants, the city would have lost 50,000 production jobs, 12,000 management jobs, and 25,000 incidental jobs.
"Immigration not only works for the immigrants, it works for the competitiveness of our country," Chisti says with conviction. "Apparel is still New York's largest industry. New York is still the apparel capital of the world. And it couldn't have been without immigrant labor. The garment industry--collapse may be too strong a word--but the garment industry simply could not continue at anything like its present level. It would lose its principal source of workers. Much of it would move off-shore."
Chisti scoffs at the idea that Americans could take over those jobs, even if the pay could be raised without destroying the industry's competitiveness. "People have the idea garment work is unskilled," he notes. "But if anyone thinks sewing a shirt in less than 20 minutes without cutting off your fingers is unskilled, let him try it. This is a skill, and it's a skill these workers have learned abroad. We don't have programs here to teach people how to sew. Immigrants learn it in informal or family networks. How are you going to replace that?"
And yet the notion persists that immigrants come here and steal jobs, consigning hard-working Americans to the unemployment lines. It is a view that the immigrants find bewildering.