By Louise M. Puck, Lucy Y. Twimasi and Shannon N. Davis
Immigrant labor is a key contributor 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 revealed 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.
Some immigrants who work in public spaces are day laborers, temporary workers hired by contractors to perform a specific job. These immigrant workers are the extra hands that tend to our beautiful gardens in spring, the season of flowers.
A team of researchers from the IIR interviewed Guatemalan and Salvadorian day laborers at the Centreville Labor Resource Center (CLRC) in Virginia. The center is one of many organizations nationwide supporting fair market for day laborers, countering wage theft, and preventing a sub-wage street-side hiring system. 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 place 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. 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 temporary visa types available to unskilled workers. This can be viewed as an acknowledgment by the U.S. government that there is a solid need for unskilled labor. However, the allocation of visas for unskilled labor does not meet the significant demand of the retail, food service, construction, landscaping, and hospitality industries within the U.S. economy. 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 work long hours, and contribute 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.
Louise M. Puck is a Social Science Researcher at the Institute for Immigration Research, George Mason University. Lucy Y. Twimasi is a Legal Contributor at the Institute for Immigration Research, George Mason University. Shannon N. Davis, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Sociology, George Mason University