Study: Illegal Immigrants Not Drawn by Jobs

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

A majority of Mexican nationals who crossed into the United States illegally in the past two years left behind paying jobs that, in some cases, are similar to the agriculture, construction and manufacturing work they find north of the border, according to a study of Mexican immigrants released yesterday by the Pew Hispanic Center.

The study seemed to explode widely held beliefs that Mexicans risk deadly trips across the Rio Grande and through broiling Arizona and New Mexico deserts solely to find work. But the Pew Center's director, Roberto Suro, said he could not say that definitively.

"There's one very clear finding and that's that unemployment per se is not a very large factor in determining whether people migrate or not," Suro said. "This is not a flow of people without jobs. Unemployment is not pushing people out. . . . "

More often, he said, the decision to migrate involve a variety of reasons, such "improvement of earnings" in Mexico, even though immigrants earn very low wages in the United States.

The study's author, Rakesh Kochhar, associate director of research for the center, said that, based on estimates, undocumented Mexican immigrants earn about twice as much in construction, manufacturing and hospitality jobs as they did working south of the border.

Other factors that contributed to Mexican migration include rejoining families and improved working conditions, Suro and Kochhar said.

The Pew Center study comes as Congress prepares to debate a number of immigration bills meant to check what appears at times to be an unimpeded flow of illegal border crossings. President Bush urged Congress to create a temporary guest worker program for immigrants, but many lawmakers are reluctant to do so without asking immigrants already in the country illegally to return home immediately or slowly over time.

The study, "The Economic Transition to America," is part of a series of reports culled from a survey of more than 4,000 Mexican nationals at consulate offices in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Fresno, Calif., between July 2004 and January 2005.

Thirty-two percent of men questioned said they worked in agriculture in Mexico, followed by 15 percent who were employed by manufacturers and 13 percent in commerce and sales. Women -- 19 percent -- mostly worked in commerce and sales, followed by manufacturing and domestic service.

After arriving in the United States, 82 percent of the illegal immigrants lived with relatives. "The strong family ties, and the social network they comprise, are clearly important to the economic assimilation of respondents," the study stated.

Unemployment is a fact of life in the transition from Mexico. A high percentage, 38, said they were unemployed for at least a month in the previous year. Women in particular, 48 percent, had trouble finding work, and 40 percent of people without a high-school education were jobless for a significant period.

Forty-five percent eventually found jobs by "talking with people" in the United States, the study said. Others visited job sites, talked to people in Mexico or consulted want ads in U.S. newspapers.

About half of illegal immigrants entered the same industries that employ most workers in Mexico. An additional 17 percent took jobs in the hospitality industry, according to the study.

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