Sociologist predicts shift in American unskilled, immigrant laborers: they will come from China rather than Mexico

While the economic downturn has reduced the interest in immigration reform, a sociologist suggests a new trend in the immigrant unskilled labor force in America: in the future, such laborers will come from China rather than Mexico.

Q: Why might Chinese immigrants overtake Mexican immigrants in low-wage, unskilled jobs here?

A: Mexico for decades has supplied our country with low-wage laborers, legal and illegal, but that’s grinding to a halt. Increased border surveillance and high unemployment are keeping people away from the United States. Other things are holding people in Mexico. They have a lower unemployment rate than we do. And what a lot of people don’t realize is that their fertility is dropping to 2.2 children per woman. It used to be six or seven children a few decades ago. There are fewer young people available (to take jobs), and fewer mouths to feed. There are about 4 million or 5 million undocumented Mexican immigrants in our country (and about 11 million illegal immigrants total). They pick up garbage, work construction, agriculture – all the things in big cities that the local people don’t want to do. Who’s going to do that work? There’s already a network of migration from China to our country; probably 200,000 to 300,000 undocumented Chinese are here. They’re mainly on the East Coast, in Houston and Los Angeles. They’re mainly doing restaurant work. Undocumented Mexicans are much more visible.

Q: Why would they leave China for the United States?

A: You have all of these rural-to-urban migrants inside China who are essentially driving the Chinese economy, doing all the work in the big cities, doing all the construction, the nanny work, the low-level jobs. They’re not going to do that forever. The economy is starting to slow down in China. The first people to lose their jobs will be these rural-to-urban migrants. In China, to move from one place to another, you have to get permission at both ends. That never happens, so people move unofficially. There are already 10 million unemployed rural-to-urban migrants. There’s already a China-to-U.S. network of undocumented migrants.

Several pieces of this argument strikes me:

1. The Chinese economy slows down. This would be a big issue for the global economy. Would there even be much of a flow of people round the globe if this happens?

2. The urbanization process in China may only be picking up steam. Here is a 2009 report from the McKinsey Global Institute on the topic. Is China prepared for this?

3. Mexican laborers are finding it harder to come to the United States and have more reasons for staying in Mexico. Does this mean that the debate over immigration from Mexico is essentially over?

4. If this shift does happen, would the immigration debate simply turn to China and away from Mexico? If so, what might be the implications of this for the US-China relationship?

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