Opinion: Letter to the Editor: April Showers, and Immigrant Labor, Bring May Flowers

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: April Showers, and Immigrant Labor, Bring May Flowers

A group of researchers from George Mason University have carried out research at the Centreville Labor Resource Center. This article is based on their findings.

Spring is the season of flowers, some that grow naturally, some that are the result of our love and attention in our own yards, and some that are tended by contractors. Contractors, as well as homeowners, sometimes need an extra pair of hands to tend to those beautiful flowers, and often those extra hands belong to an immigrant.

Immigrant labor is a key contribution to the U.S. economy in all sectors. Research from the Institute for Immigration Research (IIR) at George Mason University has documented that in 2012, foreign-born households contributed approximately $106 billion to state and federal income tax. Subsequent research has noted that immigrants added $1.6 trillion to the gross domestic product in 2013. Immigrants make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but are, for example, 28 percent of physicians and surgeons, 40 percent of medical scientists in manufacturing research and development, 22 percent of nursing, psychiatric and home health aides, and 15 percent of registered nurses.

While immigrants may be present across all economic sectors, we tend to notice them when in public spaces. There is no more public space in the spring than in flower beds and gardens. Many immigrants working in these public spaces are day laborers, individuals who are temporary workers for a specific job and contractor. A team of researchers from the IIR interviewed Guatemalan and Salvadoran day laborers at the Centreville Labor Resource Center (CLRC). The center is one out of many nationwide organizations supporting a fair market for day laborers. The initial planning of CLRC started in 2007 and was led by an outreach committee of the United Church of Christ, who also initiated a series of open community dialogues discussing the effects of immigration. Today the center acts as an employment facilitator by providing a platform for employers and day laborers to connect. Small contractors come to hire temporary workers with skills needed from a safe location, while day laborers receive protection with employer-signed contracts guaranteeing fair working conditions and pay.

The day laborers can be seen replacing roofs on humid Virginia days or sweating under the hot sun while mowing lawns or planting flowers. They undertake temporary or seasonal jobs with no real career advancement. These jobs often require great physical resilience, a feature the workers possess from starting work at an early age. Poor economic conditions, violent civil wars, coupled with military dictatorships and repression in Guatemala and El Salvador, destroyed economic opportunities and led to chronic underemployment.

Most day laborers immigrate to the U.S. as unskilled workers. There are two temporary visa types available to unskilled workers: H-2A and H-2B visas. The H-2B visa covers temporary unskilled labor for non-agricultural jobs. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the top industries utilizing the H-2B visa are the retail, food service, construction, landscaping, and hospitality industries. Therefore, day laborers would benefit from having immigrated under this visa category. The U.S. government allocates only 66,000 H-2B visas per fiscal year for these high demand industries. As a result, the H-2B visa category acknowledges a need for unskilled labor, but does not necessarily provide access to workers to fulfill the demand. Unskilled foreign workers who seek to immigrate to the U.S. permanently may apply for the EB-3 Immigrant Visa under the “Other Workers” subcategory. This visa is available to foreign nationals to immigrate and become employed through a country of origin quota system. The Immigrant Visa application must also show that there are no U.S. workers available to fill the specific position the applicant is seeking. The EB-3 “Other Workers” subcategory is known to experience significant backlog as compared to other employment-based immigrant visa categories, communicating a solid demand for unskilled workers in the U.S.

Rather than taking jobs away from local job seekers, day laborers fill specific labor market needs within a given community. Back at the CLRC, day laborers are landscapers, painters, and cleaners, but also find additional opportunities in the restaurant, construction, and retail industries. These immigrants are visible, working long hours, contributing to the economic and social fabric of everyday life. As you stop to smell the roses, view the cherry blossoms, or behold the irises and tiger lilies, you would be right to presume that immigrant labor made your spring olfactory experience more pleasant.

To learn more about the Institute for Immigration Research and our CLRC Study (and other recent work), visit iir.gmu.edu.

The writers are: Louise M. Puck, social science researcher, Institute for Immigration Research, George Mason University; Lucy Y. Twimasi, legal contributor, Institute for Immigration Research, George Mason University; and Shannon N. Davis, Ph.D., associate professor of Sociology, George Mason University.