Foundering In a Wave of Immigrants

U.S. Prosperity Eludes Millions of Newcomers

By William Branigin and Pamela Constable

Washington Post Staff Writers

May 10 1997

The Washington Post

For the first eight years after she came here from her native El Salvador in 1985, Rosa Rodriguez cleaned people's houses for a living. Since then, the 56-year-old widow has found a less demanding occupation, selling home-cooked food to other Latino immigrants. But she remains stuck, poor and unassimilated, in Washington's underground economy, where life has continued to be a struggle. "People keep coming, and it's hard to find work," said Rodriguez, who in many ways is typical of recent waves of immigrants. "It's very difficult," she said. "People are very desperate."

Among the desperate is Luis Alberto, a 25-year-old illegal immigrant from Honduras who declines to give his surname. He came to the United States three years ago and, like Rodriguez, still speaks no English. But he has a sense of American politics, and he deeply resents what he perceives as America's current anti-immigrant mood. "This is supposed to be a country of human rights and democracy," he said as he stood waiting to be offered a day's work outside a Langley Park job center one recent morning. "Why do they put so many obstacles in our way?" Rodriguez, Luis

Alberto and legions of others like them are part of a profound demographic shift that is changing the face of American society. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24.5 million people -- nearly one of every 10 people living in the United States today -- were born in another country. After falling steadily for 60 years since 1910, the foreign-born percentage of the population has doubled since 1970, the bureau reported last month.

Yet at a time of rapid technological change and growing demand for skills and education in the work force, large numbers of newcomers are unskilled and poorly educated. Compared with the native U.S. population, foreign-born inhabitants are more likely to lack a high school education, to be unemployed, to live in poverty and to use means-tested welfare benefits, census figures show. That national trend is reflected in a new census study showing a sharp jump in the number of children living in poverty in Washington's suburbs. Demographers attribute the surge in part to an influx of immigrant families.

The good news is that those born abroad tend to improve their lot the longer they stay, and those who arrived before 1970 are doing as well as or better than natives. But immigrants, both legal and illegal, who have settled here since 1990 are generally faring the worst of all. Nationwide, a third live in poverty, nearly three times the rate for the U.S.-born, and 36 percent failed to finish high school, more than double the percentage for natives.

The influx of millions of people with low skills and education levels complicates the process of assimilation into American society and appears likely to keep many stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder, according to social scientists who study the issue. Overall, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1.2 million newcomers joined the U.S. population last year. Yet fewer than 5 percent were admitted because of their job skills, which made them eligible for visas sponsored by U.S. employers to meet particular demands. Most of the rest were allowed in because they were relatives of U.S. citizens or other immigrants or were refugees, and a quarter of the total were illegal immigrants.

This does not necessarily mean that immigrants not sponsored by employers lack the education and skills needed by the U.S. economy. Many do have such qualifications. In fact, the census figures show, the percentages of all foreign- and native-born inhabitants who have college or advanced degrees are about the same, and the proportion is slightly higher for those immigrants who arrived since 1990. But the sharpest divergences between natives and immigrants, and the most worrisome numbers, come at the lower end of the education scale.

Among those who entered the United States this decade were more than 1.3 million people with less than a high school education. The demographic shift that immigration represents is rooted in the sheer volume of the influx. When the U.S.-born children of immigrants are factored in, immigration accounts for more than half of America's current population growth, the Census Bureau says.

Propelled largely by immigration and the higher fertility rates of newcomers, the U.S. population, now 265 million, will grow to nearly 400 million over the next 50 years, bringing with it major changes in the country's ethnic makeup, the bureau predicts. Much of the current influx of poor immigrants stems from a 1986 amnesty that legalized 2.68 million illegal aliens, who then sought to bring in relatives from similar poverty-stricken backgrounds. Compared with the misery these newcomers left behind, "even the poverty level in the United States is an improvement in their lives," said Saul Solorzano, director of the private Central American Resource Center here.

For many impoverished countries, America has become "an escape valve," he said. Whereas internal migration used to perform that function, many poor rural people in Central America now entirely bypass their own cities, where jobs are scarce anyway, and head straight for the United States, Solorzano said. But that sharp transition can be a difficult one and make the job of climbing the nation's economic rungs all the harder.

"The transition from rural life to one of excessive stimulus and quick change can be very hard to digest," said Sandy Dang, who directs a youth project in Columbia Heights for the Indochinese Refugee Center. "You have people from countries where the ox is pulling the plow, and here they have escalators and computers and laser doors to cope with. It is all so overwhelming, it makes them feel they cannot catch up." "We legalized a lot of people who came from relatively low education and skill backgrounds," said Lawrence Fuchs, a Brandeis professor and member of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.

Historically, earlier waves of immigration also brought in such people, but America's industrial economy gave them upward mobility, and the public school system did the same for their children. More recently, the advent of a service economy and the deterioration of urban schools have changed the prospects for many immigrants, Fuchs said. "They can get the service jobs, but they tend to be dead-end, entry-level jobs," he said. Such jobs not only offer little mobility, but they also make people highly vulnerable to economic downturns, a "potentially serious problem" in the future, Fuchs said.

Although the U.S.-born children of these immigrants may "assimilate" more easily, the contrast between their parents' poverty and the lives of other Americans often leaves them discontented, and they may not always be absorbing "the most desirable aspects of American society," said Peter Skerry, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. For example, among a "sizable chunk" of U.S.-born Latino students, Skerry believes a "cynical anti-achievement ethic" has taken hold. On the whole, he added, the assimilation process is "fraught with tension, competition and conflict."

The result of all this is often a hard road for newcomers like Rosa Rodriguez. After her husband was shot to death by soldiers and four of her eight children died in infancy, she left El Salvador in 1982, worked as a housekeeper in northern Mexico for a time and, in 1985, crossed the U.S. border using the passport of a deceased Mexican woman. Like many immigrants these days, her family here includes U.S. citizens, legal immigrants and illegal aliens such as herself. Her youngest daughter, who came to America in 1980 and obtained amnesty, was recently naturalized and petitioned for Rodriguez to become a legal permanent resident. But two other daughters, a son and three grandchildren are in legal limbo, while seven other grandchildren were born here and thus are U.S. citizens.

Wearing a pink sweat shirt and pants, Rodriguez, a short woman with close-cropped hair and a candid manner, told her story in her native Spanish as she served lunches of rice and shrimp from a stand in the lobby of a medical clinic that caters to poor Latino immigrants. "I will keep trying to work here, but if I can't I will return to El Salvador," Rodriguez said. Indeed, returning home is part of the American dream that many newcomers envision: to work hard for a while, save some money and go back with something to show for it. Instead, they often get stuck for years in minimum-wage jobs, never earning enough to save and frustrated in their erratic attempts to learn English. "I came here to improve my system of life, but this country is not like what I thought," said Valmoris Cordero, 39, who set out from El Salvador in 1995, leaving his wife and three children behind. "There are lots of diversions, but it is very hard to survive."

With no English skills and little formal education, he grabs a day's work here and there as a carpenter. "I wanted to save some money and learn a profession," he said in Spanish as he and dozens of other men in work boots waited for their numbers to be called outside the Langley Park job center. "But now all that is just a fantasy." Standing next to him was Luis Alberto, the angry young Honduran. He is willing to do any work he is offered, he said, making a muscle to prove it. But he feels the brawn and zeal of his fellow newcomers is taken for granted here. "If all the immigrants went on strike for one week," he said, "there would be not a single strawberry picked, not an office cleaned, not a plate washed."

Many Latino immigrants see the English language as a key to improving their lives, but they often make little headway learning it. In part, their difficulty reflects a Catch-22 of immigration flows. Newcomers realize they need English to get better jobs, but the expanding Latino communities they congregate in surround them with Spanish. Among those hoping to raise their skills and income is Jesus Moran, 45, an office cleaner and father of three who came here five years ago from El Salvador. "If I learn to speak English, at least they cannot treat me like an ignorant man any more," he said as he signed up for night English classes one recent evening at the nonprofit Carlos Rosario Adult Education Center in Chinatown. "I want to be able to speak up for myself, and I can't."


Foreign-born U.S. residents have less education than the native-born and are more likely to be poor, especially those who have arrived more recently.

Education level, age 25 and older Native-Born ......Foreign-Born

No high school diploma ....................16% ..................36%

High school graduate ........................60% ...................41%

College degree or higher ...................24% ...................24%


Native-Born ....................................12.9%

Foreign-born (total) .........................22.2%

Foreign-born arriving after '90 ........33.3%

Source: Census Bureau 1996 data Copyright 1997

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