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The economics of immigration in the US

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Migrant workers in the US do the jobs that Americans will not do, but they are vulnerable to bigots and big business, as The Guardian reports.

Half past seven on Tuesday morning and on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Lefferts Boulevard in Queens, New York, around 20 Sikh men stamp the cold out of their feet. Brickworkers, builders and unskilled labourers all wait at the intersection for a car to stop and offer work. But the snow on the ground is an ill omen. Construction work is scarce when the weather is this bad. So they wait.

"On a bad week you can get nothing," explains Victor Singh, who left his village near Amritsar, in India, five years ago and has not had a full-time job since. "Winter time is always slow. In the summer you can sometimes work four days a week." If nothing comes by 9am, he says, he'll go home and come back the next day - every day until his luck changes.

Friday morning in New Orleans a truck pulls up and is immediately surrounded by a group of Hispanic men. The driver shouts out his needs; the men shout back their price. Across the street a banner reads: "Remember those suffering from Katrina and Rita." But why remember something you can still see? The confederate general, high on his column in the middle of the roundabout, looks on at the haggling. Some go back to the curb; others jump in the back of the van. These scenes are replayed throughout the US every day. Scattered vignettes of supply and demand woven together with intense vulnerability that illustrate the human imperfections in a so-called perfect market.

A recent report from the University of California suggests that every morning 117,600 day labourers are hired this way. Half are employed by homeowners looking for gardening and domestic work. Slightly more than 40% are employed by contractors in construction and landscaping. Nationwide almost two-thirds are Hispanic and just over a quarter are from central America.

Migrant labourers are crucial to the US economy. Yet xenophobia among a militant minority of the public allied with opportunism among a majority of the politicians has conspired to demonise them. The Minutemen, a vigilante group that started out hunting down illegal immigrants on the border, now targets day labourers. In December, the House of Representatives passed one of the most draconian anti-immigration bills for a generation.

To his credit and his base's chagrin, President Bush has not stooped to racism on this issue, suggesting instead that once illegal immigrants have paid their fines and back-taxes they should be allowed to stay for a fixed period of time. Under this proposed "guest worker" programme, they would then have to return home. The aim, he says is to "match willing foreign workers with willing American employers to fill jobs that Americans will not do".

The proposals have split two key pillars of the Republican base: bigots and big business. But beyond those narrow, powerful constituencies there are deeper concerns grounded in neither prejudice nor profit. Under Bush's proposals, migrant workers would remain vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous employer-sponsors because any transgression could result in their deportation. Moreover, Germany's postwar "guest worker" programme kept German-born Turks "guests" in their own home for far too long. "It's a recipe for a permanent underclass," explains Jennifer Gordon, an associate professor at Fordham law school and founder of the Workplace project which supports migrant day labourers in Long Island. "If they are putting in the time and contributing their share there should be a path to citizenship."

"It is not men who immigrate but machine minders, sweepers, diggers, cement mixers, cleaners, drillers etc," wrote John Berger in Seventh Man, in 1975. "This is the significance of temporary migration. To re-become a man (husband, father, citizen, patriot) a migrant has to return home. The home he left because it held no future for him."

No long-term solution to this problem exists without addressing global economic inequalities caused by a number of factors. So long as some people's pocket change can feed other people's families for a week, labour will seek and deserve all the freedom of movement that capital has been granted. In the meantime, the more pernicious effects can be mitigated. A strict enforcement of existing labour laws would punish callous employers. Some American towns and cities have set up official day labour sites, making the process more orderly and safe. Some unions have begun to organise migrant workers to ensure that they do not breed resentment by undercutting wages.

This is not America's problem alone. But until it is addressed, the desperate will roam the globe, moving from one marginal experience to another, seeking sustenance and sensing alienation. Standing outside her tarpaulin home in a makeshift town of tents in New Orleans's City Park, Mercedes Sanchez cries as she recalls leaving her four daughters in Mexico. "You can have a lot of love for your children but it cannot fill their stomachs," she says. "In Mexico, I made 200 pesos (£11) a week. I can make that in two hours here." But only on those days when she can find work, which have been few recently.

Day labourers are not new to the US. For decades black women would stand at corners in northern cities waiting to be hired for domestic work and it has been a constant element of the immigrant experience. But recently their presence has sparked ugly antagonism.

In 2000, two people posing as contractors hired two Mexicans in Farmingville, Long Island, and then nearly beat them to death. In 2003, in the same town, teenagers nearly burned an entire Mexican family to death as they slept.

"Day labourers are more vulnerable because they are highly visible," says Amy Sugimori of the National Employment Law Project. "People have anxieties about globalisation, illegal immigration, low wages, job insecurity and they see day labourers as in some way representing all of these things."

The nature of day labour work also makes them more vulnerable to being exploited. The Southern Poverty Law Centre has filed two collective action lawsuits in New Orleans on behalf of several thousand workers who say they have not been paid or were underpaid.

"There is a general sense here at the moment that the only law that matters is the law of power," says Jennifer Rosenbaum, a lawyer with the centre's immigrant justice project.

Such tales are common not just on Lee Circle but around the country. According to the UCLA survey almost half of all day labourers said they had been both completely denied payment and underpaid in the previous two months. One in five had been injured on the job.

Simon, who was not paid for several weeks' work, is now reconsidering his decision to leave his three children behind in Mexico. "You make more money but you pay more for rent and everything else," he says. "Sometimes I think it's not worth the sacrifice of leaving your family. It's not what you think it's going to be."

As John Berger wrote: "The gold fell from very high in the sky. And so when it hit the earth it went down very, very, deep."

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