Immigrants and Refugees: A Workforce Perspective

Panelists: Martin Ford, Ph.D., Assistant Director, Maryland Office for New Americans; Gustavo Torres, Executive Director, CASA of Maryland; Samedy Sok, Director, Tressler Refugee and Immigration Services.

Martin Ford described several widely held myths concerning immigration and immigrants: that immigration in the United States is “out of control”; that immigrants take jobs from native-born workers; and that a disproportionate number of immigrants live on public assistance.

Dr. Ford cited data from the 2000 U.S. Census, which show that approximately 31 million foreign-born individuals reside in the United States. While a record in raw numbers of immigrants, this figure represents only about 10 percent of the U.S. population. A similar ratio exists in Maryland, where approximately half a million immigrants comprise roughly ten percent of Marylanders. Between 1880 and 1924, Baltimore was America’s third largest port of entry, with nearly 1.5 million immigrants arriving at Locust Point. Since then, the numbers of immigrants arriving in Baltimore have declined sharply. Today, Baltimore City trails Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Baltimore Counties in new immigrant residents. Dr. Ford said that this shift is part of a larger national trend of immigrants gravitating toward rural and suburban areas.

Regarding the issue of job displacement, Dr. Ford remarked that many immigrants find work in industries with unfavorable working conditions and low wages, in jobs that many native-born Americans find undesirable. He said that the steady influx of immigrant labor into such sectors as hospitality and agriculture acts as a disincentive to employers to improve working conditions or raise wages. Some employers, he said, fear that if they improve working conditions, jobs in their industries will move overseas. He added that immigrants in fact create jobs by working in these sectors, as demonstrated by the fact that the ten U.S. cities with the largest immigrant populations are also the cities with the lowest unemployment rates.

Dr. Ford said that many Americans believe that a high percentage of immigrants rely on public assistance. However, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only 22 percent of newly arrived immigrant families receive public benefits. The majority of immigrants are low-wage workers who fall into the category of “working poor”, meaning that their incomes fall substantially below the federal poverty line. Compared to non-immigrant families, the numbers of immigrants who are eligible to receive public benefits are far greater than the numbers who apply.

The immigrant economy is an “hourglass economy”, he said. Twenty-five percent of American doctors are foreign-born, as are 25 percent of Silicon Valley information technology professionals. At the same time, immigrants comprise a large proportion of the low-skill and unskilled working population. By depressing wages in industries that employ low-skill workers, data show that immigrant labor enhances the financial well-being of employers and higher-skilled professionals, and acts as a “safety valve” against inflation.

Baltimore should do more to attract immigrants, said Dr. Ford. He mentioned Boston, Miami, and New York as examples of cities whose economies improved markedly as a result of immigration. The key to attracting immigrants, he said, is improved educational and employment opportunities for foreign-born workers and their families.

Gustavo Torres described the work of CASA of Maryland. Based in Rockville, CASA works to improve the economic and social welfare of the state’s Latino communities through programs in the areas of employment, education, housing, health, and legal services. CASA was founded in 1985 to respond to the human service needs of Central Americans arriving to the area after fleeing wars and civil strife in their countries of origin. In the 1990s, CASA began community organizing and advocacy efforts on behalf of the Washington region’s day laborers and domestic workers, most of whom are Latinos. A resource center was established in 1992 to provide legal assistance to day laborers who had not received wages promised them by employers. In addition to legal services, the center offers classes in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), intake and assessment of eligibility for services, and information about immigration procedures.

Among the public policy issues on CASA’s advocacy agenda is support for a living wage ordinance in Montgomery County, which was enacted. In collaboration with the AFL-CIO, CASA is currently working to establish a national Day Laborer’s Union. With support from the Open Society Institute, CASA recently opened a branch in Baltimore to provide legal advocacy for day laborers in the Baltimore region.

Samedy Sok is director of Tressler Refugee and Immigration Services of Maryland, an affiliate of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Located in southeast Baltimore, Tressler provides comprehensive resettlement services, including employment, to between 15 and 25 refugees each month.

Mr. Sok spoke of his personal experience as a refugee from Cambodia. He came to the United States in 1982 after spending three years in a Thai refugee camp. He described the suffering inflicted upon government officials, intellectuals, and members of his own family during Cambodia’s civil war, which ended in 1979. Fleeing persecution by the Khmer Rouge, he sought refuge in Thailand before applying for asylum in the United States.

He explained that most refugees have undergone experiences similar to his. Displaced from their home countries as a result of war, persecution, and political turmoil, political refugees seek safety in other lands. If they are unable to return home due to continued upheaval, they must seek entry to a country that will grant them asylum and permit them to stay. Only a small percentage of displaced persons are admitted to the U.S. refugee program, which grants legal permanent resident status to approximately 70,000 asylum seekers per year. When they arrive in this country, refugees are urged to find permanent employment and strive toward family self-sufficiency in a very short amount of time. Resettlement organizations such as Tressler provide limited core services such as transitional housing and cash assistance, but have limited time and resources to assist their refugee clients. Mr. Sok called for greater public awareness of refugee issues in Baltimore and the U.S. He urged community members to reach out to the area’s growing refugee population.

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