The nation’s attention is currently on the southern border, where the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy has caused a crisis over separated immigrant children.
Sometimes forgotten as the nation focuses attention on migrants currently trying to cross the border is that millions of undocumented immigrants continue to live in the U.S. – and most of them work.
And in fact, these workers play vital roles in the U.S. economy, erecting American buildings, picking American apples and grapes, and taking care of American babies. Oh, and paying American taxes.
My work as the director of the Cornell Farmworker Program involves meeting with undocumented workers in New York, and the farmers who employ them. Here’s a snapshot of who they are, where they work – and why Americans should care about them.
A snapshot of who they are
Pew Research Center estimates that about 11.3 million people are currently living in the U.S. without authorization, down from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007. More than half come from Mexico, and about 15 percent come from other parts Latin America.
Get the data Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-ND Source: Pew Research Center
About 8 million of them have jobs, making up 5 percent of the U.S. workforce, figures that have remained more or less steady for the past decade.
Geographically, these unauthorized workers are spread throughout the U.S. but are unsurprisingly most concentrated in border states like California and Texas, where they make up about 9 percent of both states’ workforces, while in Nevada, their share is over 10 percent.
Get the data Map: The Conversation, CC-BY-ND Source: Pew Research Center
Their representation in particular industries is even more pronounced, and the Department of Agriculture estimates that about half of the nation’s farmworkers are unauthorized, while 15 percent of those in construction lack papers – more than the share of legal immigrants in either industry. In the service sector, which would include jobs such as fast food and domestic help, the figure is about 9 percent.
Get the data Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-ND Source: USDA, Pew Research Center
Further studies show that the importance of this population of workers will only grow in coming years. For example, in 2014, unauthorized immigrants made up 24 percent of maids and cleaners, an occupation expected to need 112,000 more workers by 2024. In construction, the number of additional laborers needed is estimated at close to 150,000. And while only 4 percent of personal care and home health aides are undocumented, the U.S. will soon require more than 800,000 people to fill the jobs necessary to take care of retiring baby boomers.
Vital to American farms
Since agriculture is the industry that’s most reliant on undocumented workers – and it’s my area of expertise and research – let’s zoom in on it.
Overall, the agricultural industry in the United States has been on the decline since 1950. Back then, farming was a family business that employed more than 10 million workers, 77 percent of whom were classified as “family.” As of 2000 – the latest such data available – only 3 million work on farms, and as noted earlier, an estimated half are undocumented.
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Increasingly, dairy farms such as those in New York rely on workers from Mexico and Guatemala, many of whom are believed to be undocumented. Currently, there is no visa program for year-round workers on dairy farms, so the precarious status of these workers poses serious concerns for the economic viability of the dairy industry.
In recent research conducted by the Cornell Farmworker Program, 30 New York dairy farmers told us they turned to undocumented workers because they were unable to find and keep reliable U.S. citizens to do the jobs. That’s in part because farm work can be ……
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