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Know Your Rights
Source: The Wall Street Journal
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Immigrants Top Ranks of Jobless


The unemployment rate among immigrants in the U.S. outpaced that of native-born workers last month, with the gap particularly pronounced among women.

Some 11.8% of foreign-born workers were unemployed in January, compared to 10.3% of native workers, the Labor Department said Friday.

In addition to a deep recession that has wiped out more than eight-million jobs, the prevalence of immigrants working in the hard-hit construction sector helped fuel the higher numbers, according to analysts.

Historically, the department hasn’t published separate unemployment rates for foreign-born workers on a monthly basis. Previously the rate of joblessness for immigrants was reported only as an annual average. Both legal and illegal immigrants are included in the Labor Department’s numbers, though the depth of unemployment for the undocumented workers might be under-represented.

"There has been a fairly sharp increase in the unemployment rate among foreign-born Hispanics, who we know constitute more than half of the foreign-born work force in the U.S. and are disproportionately represented in the construction industry," said Rakesh Kochhar, associate director for research at the independent Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.

Dwindling construction jobs—which fell by 75,000 in January alone—has made finding work more difficult for the immigrant community, which often faces additional obstacles such as language barriers. Since the recession began in December 2007, construction employment has lost 1.9 million jobs. 

However, while the jobless rate for foreign-born men is little different than that for their native-born counterparts, there’s a substantial divide among women: Last month, the unemployment rate for immigrant women was 10.6%—while that of native-born women was 8.2%.

Jobs that tend to be popular among immigrant women, such as working on cleaning crews and in hospitality, are sparse as the hospitality industry continues to suffer. Employment in leisure and hospitality fell by 14,000 last month. 

At the Hollywood Day Laborer Center in California on a recent day, about 75 men sat at picnic tables under a covered area next to a trailer, the hiring hall’s office. Some of the idle construction workers played checkers with bottle caps, "We’re so bored," one of them muttered in Spanish.

Juan Ralda, 23 years old, said that he is an expert in masonry who worked for a contractor in Santa Monica until bank financing dried up for his residential projects.

"I haven’t had steady work for a year," said the Guatemalan immigrant. He used to send home $300 a month to help support his mother and three younger siblings. "Now, I barely earn enough money to eat and pay the rent."

In the U.S. for four years, Mr. Ralda doesn’t think of returning home. "There’s not much opportunity in my country, either," he said.

As an undocumented immigrant, he risks being caught and sent home if he tries to sneak into the U.S. again. Asked whether he had tried to find jobs at car washes or restaurants, Mr. Ralda said he had: "Those are all full."

Indeed, finding any job has been difficult, said Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an advocacy group for low-wage and immigrant workers based out of New York City. 

Make the Road began providing employment-development services in the past year but "we’ve had a really hard time helping people find jobs, in part because there is very intense competition," Ms. Archila said. "They are competing with people who may have higher skills and more of them."

The Labor Department’s unemployment statistics point to a shift in fortunes for immigrant labor: From 2004 until 2008, the jobless rate for foreign-born workers either matched or was lower than that for native-born workers. For 2009, the average rate for immigrants was higher.

Manuel Zambrano, 45, held a steady, full-time job working for a delivery company until three months ago when the business closed. These days he only gets one or two days of work each week as a maintenance man at a university, Mr. Zambrano said through a translator. Now he sends less than 60% of what he once was able to back to his family, including his two children, in Ecuador. He is holding out hope that things will improve soon.