When I was doing research in Mexico in 1999, my colleague Payal noticed a trend in the immigrant labor market. The undocumented and newest arrivals to the U.S. generally had the worst jobs: they picked mushrooms or fruit, made the least money, and aspired to move into one of two better sources of employment: construction and “la yarda.”
La yarda is Spanglish for Landscaping. This article from today’s Washington Post outlines the racial transformation of this industry. Most landscapers in the early 1990s employed African Americans; today the field is dominated by Latinos, although their bosses are typically Anglo.
The article highlights a trend in low-wage industries: African Americans and other citizens are unlikely to work under the conditions required for some low-wage jobs (see my post on African Americans and the chicken processing industry from January 17, 2007). Latinos, particularly the undocumented, have “soft skills,” like obedience and willingness to work under substandard conditions, that make them more attractive to business owners. Within a relatively short period of time, employers will seek Latinos, believing they are inherently better workers, effectively shutting out African Americans and others who might be interested in doing the work, but they also would be interested in demanding their rights.
What would happen to the labor market, I wonder, if the U.S. were able to effectively end the hiring undocumented immigrants, such as through a national I.D. card? Would documented Latinos still be “ideal” employees, or would that change once they were not longer vulnerable and without recourse?