How it's affecting us

In Houston, a city swollen with immigrants from the declining industrial cities of Michigan and Indiana and the turbulent societies of Central and South America, I spent several days talking with illegal immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador. All had been successful by their own standards, but all operated along the margin that separates jobs "with a future" from work Americans "won't" do.

One of the women was in her forties and was wearing a housekeeper's jacket from an office-maintenance firm. She had been raised in El Salvador, and for several years taught elementary school there. She came to the United States in 1970, when she was in her late twenties, on a tourist visa. It expired after three months, but she decided to stay. She began to work as a live-in maid for three immigrant families who shared one house. Her pay was $40 a week plus room and board. By 1974, she was earning $75 a week for the same work.

"Next, I learn to drive, so I can make more money," she said. With more of the city to choose her employers from, she was able to raise her rate to $125 a week. "But I am so tired of living in. I look for other work." In 1977, she found a job as a nighttime janitor—"bathroom lady"—in an office building. After a month and a half there, "the company sees that I speak a little English," she said. "They have other Latin people working there. They put me in a supervisory position, give me $2.65 an hour. During the days, I still clean house for $30 a day. I take the bus, and from six to ten in the evening I clean the offices. I am working thirteen hours a day."

She maintained this pace until 1981. As she had moved toward bigger, more institutionalized employers, her treatment had improved, and she hoped to continue that trend. She went to the employment manager at one of Houston's best-known hotels and applied to be supervisor of the housekeeping staff. She was eventually hired, and after several months moved to a similar position at a new office center. She now earns and pays taxes on $18,000 a year. "Nobody ever asks me for my paper," she says. "Never. But my wages are too low I take care of a big place; I would be making more than $18,000 if I had my papers."

I also met in Houston an eighteen-year-old with a tousle-haired country-boy look, who was dressed in shiny black polyester trousers and a matching vest, worn over a white-on-white shirt. He left his farming village in El Salvador late in 1980, because, he said, "it is dangerous to be on either side." He took buses through Guatemala and Mexico, offered *mordida*—bribes—of $10 and $20 a shot to Mexican officials along the way, and reached the frontier near Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, by the end of the year. He crossed the Rio Grande, which at most places means nothing more than a wade, and hitchhiked out of Laredo to Houston. He located friends from his village, lived with them, and found a job at $3.40 an hour washing dishes in a well-known hotel. This wage was typical: outside of agriculture and domestic service, I found almost no illegal immigrants working for less than the federal minimum wage of $3.35 an hour, but many working at the minimum or just above it.

After a few days in the kitchen, the young man had heard enough from his friends to believe that he could find a less grueling way to earn his money. He found a job in a metal-pipe yard, which at least was outdoor work. He tried to improve his English, and, although it is still not good, he was able to apply for jobs in which he would deal with the public. He returned to the hotel, where he now works as a bartender, earning $4.25 an hour.

His companion, also from El Salvador, was a twenty-four-year-old with the intense, committed look of a radical intellectual. Of the several dozen Salvadorans I met in California and Texas, perhaps one quarter explained their immigration in terms of political oppression and human rights. The rest said they were hunting for work. This young man was one of the quarter. He said he had reluctantly left his wife and child behind, because he was "Looking for a country that would respect human rights." He took buses through Mexico until he neared the U.S. border, then waded the Rio Grande near Brownsville. He worked on farm-labor gangs on the vast, flat ranches of South Texas, hitched a ride to Houston, and started as a minimum-wage dishwasher in a hotel, the job he still holds. After he was established, he called for his wife to join him. She left their first child at home with her parents. Their second child was born in Houston late last year, a U. S. citizen.

These dishwashers and maids think they are doing jobs most Americans would refuse. But there is another view of illegal immigration: it holds that men and women like those I met in Houston are displacing Americans, directly or indirectly.

Donald Huddle, of Rice University, contends that citizens do want the jobs immigrants now hold. Huddle and other researchers surveyed the jobs that illegal immigrants were holding when they were caught and found that they paid from $4 to $9.50 an hour. He concluded, "These wages debunk the commonly held notion that illegal aliens are taking only those jobs that Americans don't want because they are so lowly paid." Vernon Briggs points out that in every broad category of work in which illegal immigrants are found, most of the workers are still American citizens. He says that therefore it is misleading to talk about "immigrant work."

A more fundamental objection raised to the "Americans won't do dirty work" argument is that it ignores the dynamic aspect of economics. Perhaps it proves nothing that citizens won't take the jobs now available in the packing house and the tomato field; perhaps those jobs are dirty and low-paid precisely because so much cheap labor is available to fill them. "If there were no illegals," says Ray Marshall, "the jobs would be different."

Businesses in the service sector, such as restaurants and hotels, would pass along the modest additional cost of hiring legal help. Who would notice the extra dollar on the dinner bill? Some farmers would be able to pass along the extra cost of picking grapes or oranges; others would use labor more efficiently or mechanize their fields.

Still other businesses would fold, but for them the restrictionists shed no tears. In part, they would be service "businesses," such as household help. What would happen if the border were closed tomorrow? I asked Alfred Giugni, in El Paso. "The only serious impact would be the maid situation," he said. "Everything else would work out. You get the impression that the only maids who are paid the minimum wage in El Paso are the ones who work for people in the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service]."

The other likely casualties would be garment factories, leather works, and other low-wage, labor-intensive businesses. "The jobs in which illegal aliens are not displacing American workers are those jobs in which American industry is competing with workers in newly developed countries," Dan Stein, an official of FAIR, has written. America's future lies with a skillful work force and high tech. "The fewer unskilled laborers there are in this country, the better off we should be," Vernon Briggs says.

In any case, Conner, Briggs, and others argue, it is a strange and greedy kind of social arithmetic that tots up those who might hypothetically be hurt by restriction but ignores those who are now paying the costs of uncontrolled borders.

Briggs notes government estimates that 29 million people, or nearly 30 percent of the employed civilian labor force, work in what he calls "the kinds of low-skilled industrial, service, and agricultural jobs in which illegal aliens typically seek employment." He contends that "farm workers, dishwashers, laborers, garbage collectors, building cleaners, restaurant employees, gardeners, maintenance workers, to name a few occupations, perform useful and often indispensable work. Unfortunately, their remuneration is often poor, in part because there is a large pool of persons available for these jobs."

"The victims of immigration are the marginal workers, with low education, who may not be hot to work sixty hours a week," says Roger Conner. "My own life as an employer teaches me that if an employer is looking for a minimum of hassle, he will look past these people—unless he has a reason to have to make it work with them. There is just enough truth to the notion that aliens make better workers that it nourishes the stereotypes and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. One reason there are so few opportunities for young black people on construction sites is that the aliens on the scene always have somebody available to bring in with them."

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In