Decades past, Americans proudly declared this "a nation of immigrants." We celebrated the idea of the United States as a Melting Pot, a nation capable of welcoming and assimilating just about anyone from anywhere who sought refuge or opportunity here. But the story of immigrants in the United States is no longer, if it ever truly was, one of liberty or refuge, or even opportunity in a Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches sense.
"It has to do with jobs," says Mufazzar Chisti, a senior analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. "[Immigrants] don't come here for the quality of air in New York City. They go where the jobs are."
Once inclined to wax romantic about the Great Wave at the turn of the century, Americans now tend to see immigration as threatening their prosperity: Two-thirds in a January Gallup poll said immigration hurts the economy by driving down wages.
But where American workers perceive a threat, the nation's employers see opportunity. During the 1990s, more new immigrants sought and found jobs in the United States than at any other time in the nation's history. Between 1990 and 2001, immigrants accounted for 50.3% of the growth in the nation's civilian labor force. Even during the recent recession, when native-born workers experienced a net job loss, immigrant employment increased by 3.3%.
The increased demand for immigrant workers trancends short-term economic growth, Chisti says. Rather, a fundamentally restructured U.S. economy needs more low-wage labor than the American work force will supply.
"In the low-wage sector, the concentration of immigrants is much higher now than it has been," Chisti says. "In parts of the country where immigrants are more than 10% of the population, you may have 60% to 70% of lower wage workers who are foreign born. That's a huge shift."
Where The Jobs Are
The change has already taken hold in much of the construction industry, where an increasing reliance on immigrants for low-end labor became evident years ago. In the 1990s, says NAHB economist Michael Carliner, when the housing boom fueled unprecedented expansion in the home building industry, that growth accelerated the demand for foreign-born labor. Particularly in the production building sector, contractors' need for labor was so intense as to nearly lead to an industry crisis. It was a largely Mexican, foreign-born work force that powered builders through the worst of the shortage.
"Without that immigrant labor," Carliner says, "[builders] would have been in tough shape."
Full-service remodelers generally need less production muscle than builders or trade contractors, but the remodeling industry too has had to contend with Americans' declining interest in construction careers.
"No one wants to go into the trades," says Michael Menn, of Design Construction Concepts, Chicago, adding that enrollment is down at a local trade school affiliated with his company. "There are jobs Americans just don't want to do anymore."
For those who do seek construction careers, remodelers have plenty of complaints about commitment and work ethic. "I've had three American kids in the last year who haven't worked out, and they've had a nasty attitude," says George Christiansen, president of Pequot Remodeling, Bridgeport, Conn.
Remodelers all over the country echo Christiansen's gripe. But he is one of a relative few who have countered the shortage by hiring foreign-born workers full-time. He currently employs two Brazilian carpenters and has hired workers from Poland, Jamaica, and Mexico.
Though they haven't all worked out, Christiansen draws a sharp contrast between his foreign-born workers' attitudes and those of the three difficult Americans. "You want people working for you who are happy to get a paycheck and happy to show up for work every day."
The diverse, multi-ethnic labor force Christiansen finds in Bridgeport is hardly representative of much of the nation. Yet with each passing year, growing numbers of American towns begin to look like Bridgeport. Perhaps even more notable than the Second Great Wave's sheer numbers are the destinations these immigrants choose. Analyses of the 2000 Census reveal unprecedented patterns in the state-by-state distribution of new immigrant populations.
"In the past, people used to think of immigration as a fundamentally metropolitan, big city phenomenon," Chisti says. But while major cities continue to absorb much of the incoming immigrant population, "increasingly, in the last 10 years, it's a much [more widespread] phenomenon." The majority of foreign-born workers still reside in the traditional immigrant states of California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey, and the Washington, D.C.-metropolitan area. But during the 1990s, immigrant populations in non-traditional states in the South, Plains, and Midwest grew at nearly twice the rate as those in the traditional six. New immigrant populations nearly doubled in 22 different states.
States never before considered immigrant havens, like North Carolina, Iowa, and Nebraska, absorbed massive influxes of immigrants. "These states have huge new immigrant populations," Chisti says.
Remodelers in many of these states have already witnessed large demographic shifts in production labor.
Nashville remodeler David Crane says that just 10 years ago, he rarely saw foreign-born workers on local jobsites. Now, he says, "in many of our trades, the great majority [of the workers] are Hispanic." The owner of Crane Builders says he also occasionally sees Bosnian and Sudanese workers, members of small refugee communities that have grown around urban centers in the South.
Bob McKay, owner of McKay Builders in Birmingham, Ala., says he can't understate the labor support provided by Hispanic trade workers over the past several years. "Without Hispanics," he says, "the construction industry in Birmingham would shut down."
But while trade and specialty contractors have tapped into the immigrant labor market, few full-service companies working outside of major metro areas hire immigrants on staff. It's the particular nature of the remodeling business that many say has consigned most immigrants in the industry to trades and low-wage labor. They insist that communication, especially the frequent and potentially charged interactions between workers and clients, is too important to tolerate a language barrier.
In some areas, there is basis for those concerns. David Crane says homeowners occasionally complain to him about the presence of foreign-born workers on his jobsites. Crane says the trouble arises because workers who speak English poorly, if at all, can't build a rapport with the homeowner.
"What we run into," Crane says, "isn't really as much prejudice as discomfort."
In Kansas City, remodeler and replacement contractor Doug Bennet says clients have actually raised concerns during the sales process about whether Rhino Builders' crews speak English. Bennet, who subs out all of his replacement labor, frequently employs primarily foreign-born crews. A Czech siding crew is his best performing, Bennet says.
To allay customer fears, Bennet says, he talks up his Czech crew's workmanship and experience and provides addresses of projects the crew has completed, allowing customers to see the quality of the work for themselves.
Bennet says some companies instill fear in homeowners, intimating that foreign-born workers could leave a job unfinished if they run afoul of immigration services.
Even so, he says, homeowners have grown more comfortable with the presence of immigrant workers. "Ten years ago, this would've been a bigger concern because there were so few immigrant workers in this area," Bennet says. "Now it's becoming more commonplace."