Immigrants' dreams deferred in U.S.
By Maria Sacchetti The Boston Globe
Published: March 24, 2009
BOSTON: Amar Sharma is about to earn a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an achievement he hoped would land him a high-flying post in the United States. But if he doesn't find a job soon, he could end up back in India.
Not far from M.I.T., Bedardo Sola is devastated by the loss of his janitorial job at Harvard University. The layoff plunges two households into jeopardy: his family here, and the daughter he supports in El Salvador.
Soaring unemployment is hammering families across the United States, and it is having a particular impact on immigrants. In addition to their livelihoods, foreign-born workers could lose their work permits and their hope for a future in the United States. Even naturalized U.S. citizens lose the source of the money they send to relatives back home.
But as unemployment rises, so does friction over immigration, with lawmakers and others calling for increased restrictions on foreign workers to preserve U.S. citizens' jobs, while advocates warn that immigrants will be crucial to any economic recovery.
There is no single measure to determine how immigrants are faring in the recession. Most immigrants are in a vulnerable demographic, concentrated at the high and low ends of the economy, in the battered construction and hospitality industries as well as in finance and high technology. Those most at risk are often poor, less educated, and not fluent in English.
Several signs point to a dramatic nationwide slowdown, according to the Migration Policy Institute, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Pew Hispanic Center, all based in Washington. Illegal immigration has not increased significantly since 2006; money transfers to Latin America dropped late last year for the first time in nearly a decade; and unemployment for Latino immigrants soared from 5 percent to 8 percent last year.
Immigrants are "faring the same, and probably, in many cases, worse than the rest of us, especially if they're working in the underground economy," said George Noel, director of the Massachusetts Department of Labor, who is conducting an inquiry into the state's low-wage work force.
Affecting the high end of the economic spectrum, Congress just banned companies that receive federal bailout money from replacing laid-off American workers with skilled foreign workers admitted to the United States under the H-1B visa program. It will be issuing up to 85,000 visas a year starting April 1, but the program came under fire recently when some companies cutting jobs applied for foreign workers.
Some voices are clamoring for more federal restrictions on immigration to preserve jobs at the low end of the economy. According to a study late last year, immigrants without a high-school diploma had lower unemployment rates than native-born Americans, particularly blacks and Latinos. Of such immigrants, 11 percent were unemployed, as against 25 percent of blacks and 16 percent of U.S.-born Latinos.
"We should not entertain any increases in immigration," said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, the Washington research group that conducted the study. "It doesn't make sense to keep adding to the population that's getting clobbered."
Still, analysts like Demetrios G. Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute. say that so far, the public debate appears focused on corporate scandals and the use of federal bailout money, and not on immigrants.
"The big target is what has been happening on Wall Street and the banking sector," Mr. Papademetriou said. "So far, it's the greed."
Across Massachusetts, unions, immigration lawyers, and advocates are mobilizing to protect workers' rights, holding rallies, and even referring workers to counseling for depression and stress. Some workers have to leave the country if they lose their jobs. Others have permission to stay, but they might still be under intense pressure to send money home.
At local union hall recently, Mr. Sola held his head in his hands after he was laid off from his job cleaning a Harvard dormitory. Mr. Sola, who is in the United States legally, said he sends hundreds of dollars a month home to a 10-year-old daughter with an autoimmune disorder.
"I didn't come to this country to be a dependent," said Mr. Sola, 42. "I want to work."
Union workers are fighting the layoff, saying it occurred without regard to seniority. And they are criticizing Harvard for the cost-cutting that led to the layoffs of workers who take some of the hardest jobs.
Kevin Galvin, a Harvard spokesman, said the university was facing "unprecedented fiscal challenges" and was cutting in many areas, including imposing a salary freeze on faculty and nonunion staff. Galvin said a subcontractor, not Harvard, was carrying out the layoffs. The subcontractor did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, professionals like Mr. Sharma are scouring career centers, networking at coffee shops and cocktail parties, and appealing to college alumni for help.
Mr. Sharma is about to earn a master's degree in engineering and management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after working for several years for International Business Machines in Kansas and in his native India. At 30, he helps support his mother, a government clerk, and a younger brother.
He has not had a job interview since January. He wants to be an information technology strategist, but if he does not find work in the next few months, he would probably have to take a lower-paying job in India to pay off $80,000 in loans.
"I never thought things were going to go bad," he said. "I thought the moment I graduated everything would be all right."
Laila Shabir, a 22-year-old M.I.T. undergraduate from the United Arab Emirates, said the recession was so bad that she had decided to delay graduation to keep hunting for a job.
"I go to M.I.T. and study economics and I have a great résumé," said Ms. Shabir, the daughter of a plumber and a housewife. "Why am I having such a hard time finding a job?"
Others are worried that a backlash against foreign workers could hurt the U.S. economic recovery. A year ago, the Canadian province of Alberta launched a program to attract workers in the United States on H-1B visas. Since April, more than 2,000 people have applied, drawn by the easier immigration system and the "open spaces" and "blue skies" that Alberta touts (promotions leave out the subzero temperatures). More than 300 have been nominated to come to Canada so far.
George Bruno, an immigration lawyer in New Hampshire, says the program was "draining our brain power."
"At some point our economy is going to bounce back," he said. "And when it does, who's going to be better positioned, Canada or the United States?"