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BORDER AMERICA

Illegal -- but Essential

Experts say undocumented immigrants are a driving force in the economy, despite a toll on public services and unskilled workers

October 01, 2006|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

The plentiful supply of workers, Card speculates, has led companies to keep people at jobs that might otherwise have been automated.

Other economists wonder whether the reason for the limited effect on wages is even more basic: Instead of competing with immigrants, many native workers simply surrender, perhaps relocating to cities with better prospects.

In a new book titled "L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement," UCLA sociologist Ruth Milkman uses census data to show how some jobs have changed over the decades.

From 1970 to 2000, Milkman calculates, the percentage of janitors in Greater Los Angeles who were black fell from 24% to 5.2%. Meanwhile, the foreign-born Latino share rose from 10.3% to 63.4%.

Similar transitions occurred among construction drywallers, truckers and garment workers.

As in satellite TV installation, wages for these jobs are a far cry from what they once were. But Milkman says that's not because the companies replaced the natives with illegal workers.

Instead, the employers first squeezed benefits and salaries under the mantle of "competitiveness." The lengthy decline of trade unions undermined workers' ability to fight back.

Natives who could get out did so. The gaps were typically filled by immigrants, but in Milkman's analysis their hiring was a consequence, rather than a cause, of the jobs' lost allure.

The surprising development is that the immigrants, far from being pliant, have reinvigorated the union movement and in some cases won higher wages. "The people who have been demonized, the illegal immigrants, are in some ways showing the way forward for everyone," Milkman said.

For Jourdan, precisely what happened to his installation wages is of little consequence. What matters is the constant worry about slipping behind.

"As a technician, you knew that if you went in every morning and did the work, there'd be a check at the end of the week," he said. "Now I don't have that security."

He's thinking of moving -- maybe north to Palmdale or east to Moreno Valley. That's what some of his Inglewood friends have done.

"There are so many homes being built out there, so many potential customers for satellite systems," he said. "Maybe I should go too."

A Region Revitalized

When Panorama City in the San Fernando Valley boomed after World War II, the developers allowed only white people to buy houses. For four decades, General Motors made Chevrolets there, offering at peak production a solid income to more than 5,000 workers.

In 1992, the plant, the Southland's last car factory, was closed. With unemployment in the county running at 10%, few of the assembly-line workers were able to find new jobs paying them the $17 and $18 an hour they had been earning.

Similar closures happened throughout the country. But when the plants shut down in Ohio or Pennsylvania, they tended to become permanent ruins. The surrounding streets festered with abandoned houses and empty storefronts. Pittsburgh, Detroit and Cleveland have had to grapple with massive, long-term population declines.

In Panorama City, vitality quickly reemerged in a new language and a new culture. What it had -- which the cities back East lacked -- was the proximity of Mexico.

In the 1990s, L.A. County gained 1 million immigrants, most of them from Latin America, many of them illegal. In Panorama City, the Latino population grew from a significant minority to an outright majority.

The community around the former GM plant is thriving, if not exactly upscale. The plant itself is a shopping center called, straightforwardly enough, the Plant. It is anchored by a Home Depot where illegal immigrants wait for work that will pay about half what the autoworkers got, with no benefits and no promises about tomorrow.

On the surrounding streets are clinics, cheap restaurants and music and furniture stores catering to Latinos. It's one of many centers of the informal economy in L.A., where most transactions are in cash.

To many Californians, this is not a change for the better.

"I really don't consider the low-income parts of California to even be California anymore," said Kevin Waterson, an administrative employee of UC Davis, near Sacramento. "The quality of life is much more like that in Mexico."

A year ago, the Public Policy Institute of California polled state residents on whether immigrants were "a burden to California because they use public services" or "a benefit to California because of their hard work and job skills."

"Benefit" was picked by 56% and "burden" by 36%. Many of those in the latter camp, including Waterson, see illegal immigrants as competition. The struggle is less about jobs than scarce community resources, including affordable homes, gridlock-free roads and good schools.

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