Immigrant Workers in the United States (Part 1)

Against the Current, No. 127, March/April 2007

Kim Moody

THE RISE OF mass immigration in much of the developed world began its acceleration with the global economic crisis of the 1970s. A deepening crisis of profitability; the collapse of the Bretton Woods currency system; and the recession of 1974-75 encouraged an acceleration of foreign direct investment, the rise of multinational  corporations, and the subsequent increase in trade.

By the 1980s, aggressive lending by major banks led to the Third World debt crisis and International Monetary Fund “structural adjustment programs” that drove millions from the land and other traditional employment. A series of civil wars and U.S. military interventions throughout this era sent millions more displaced farmers and workers from their homes to many of the wealthier countries of the OECD in search of work.(1)

In the United States, where the immigrant population had declined in the 1950s and remained stagnant in the 1960s, the foreign-born population rose from 9.7 million in 1970 to 34.2 million in 2004. By 2004, the employed foreign-born workforce had risen to over 20 million, composing 14.5% of those employed in the U.S.(2) As the immigrant workforce grew and more in its ranks established some measure of security in the United States, in numbers if not always in legal status, they began to organize to address the severe economic, social, and legal problems they faced. In doing so they would turn to traditional trade unions, create some of their own, and build new types of community-based worker organizations.

The Scope of Immigration

The 1965 Hart-Cellars Act ended the highly discriminatory national quota system and opened the door, within limits, to Third World immigration, particularly for those with relatives already in the United States, with sought-after skills, or those with refugee or asylum status.(3) While recorded legal immigration did increase somewhat after that, it was not until the mid-1980s that the immigrant population began to take off, with 68% of the total arriving after 1980 and the percentage of the foreign-born almost doubling to nearly 12%.

The far narrower measure of those with permanent legal residence, hit its high point in 1991 when 1.8 million people were “admitted” into the country as legal permanent residents. The level of annual documented entry has remained high ever since.(4) The figure for those “admitted,” however, overstates the level of actual legal immigration since only 45% of the 4.3 million people “admitted” between 1995 and 2005 were actually new arrivals. The rest were people already in the country who had an “adjustment of status.”

The pattern of immigration has changed over the decades since the end of WWII. In the 1940s, while Europe was only recovering from the war and its economies still weak, the largest number of immigrants still came from there. In the 1960s, however, the inflow of people from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America surpassed that of Europe. Asia also grew rapidly, with the Philippines supplying the largest group. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, European immigration continued to decline in absolute numbers despite an early 1990s increase from former Communist countries.

It was in the 1980s that immigration into the United States exploded, when the legal inflow from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, already significant at 1.5 million for the whole decade of the 1970s, almost doubled to just under three million. This immigration remained high through the 1990s and grew somewhat again from 2000 to 2005, averaging about 350,000 a year. Unlike the majority of Asian immigration, which has also increased, that from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean is not based on “employment preferences” which favor educated professionals. These were poor people fleeing the wreckage of globalization.(5)

As of 2004 there were 11.6 million legal permanent resident immigrants in the U.S., according to the Department of Homeland Security. Legal permanent residents are those with “green cards.” Of these 3.1 million were of Mexican origin, by far the largest group. The next largest groups were from the Philippines and India with half-a-million each; followed by China, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam, each at about 400,000.(6)

In addition, according to estimates by the Department of Homeland Security, which replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Service in tracking and regulating immigration since 2002, there were 10.5 million “unauthorized” or undocumented immigrants in the U.S. as of January 2005. Over 80% of these undocumented immigrants had arrived since 1990.(7)

Between those with “green card” status and the undocumented are those with temporary or indefinite status, from holders of temporary work permits (883,706 in 2005) to student visas (663,958 in 2005), who are officially considered “nonimmigrants.” These are immigrants whose status is always in danger of expiration and whose “overstays” compose much of the undocumented population.(8)

Of the 34.2 million foreign-born people in the United States by 2004, some 21 million were not citizens. Of the foreign-born civilian labor force of over 20 million, employed and/or looking for work in 2004, almost 12 million were not citizens. About half a million legal permanent residents become citizens each year, but the process is long and it seems clear that the annual flow of documented and undocumented workers is much larger.(9)

The list of major countries of origin is suggestive of the most basic causes of recent growth in immigration. With the exception of India, all these countries have established trails of immigration that go back to U.S. economic and/or military involvement in these nations. Mexico, China, Cuba and the Philippines go back to the initial period of U.S. empire-building just over a hundred years ago, but also reflect, with the exception of Cuba, the deep contemporary involvement of U.S. business in these areas.

Korea, of course, entered the U.S. orbit during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Vietnam and the Dominican Republic trace back to U.S. military interventions, albeit on a very different scale, in the 1960s. El Salvador, Korea and Cuba, with 300,000 each, are all sites of U.S. intervention within the last half century. Canada and the United Kingdom also fall in the 300,000 legal resident range, but clearly represent a different case.(10) Along with India, immigration from these two countries tends to be composed in its majority of  college-educated professionals, managers, and technicians.(11) For Mexico, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, the correlation between the impact of globalization, U.S. foreign policy and accelerated emigration from those countries is all too clear.

Like the Caribbean, Central America became part of the U.S. “backyard” after the Spanish-American War. By the 1920s, U.S. business had more invested in all of Latin America, mostly in Central America and the Caribbean, than in Europe. In the 1920s and 1930s, the U.S. military intervened throughout the region scores of times to protect American business interests there. As Sidney Lens wrote some years ago, “There was never a day from 1919 to 1933 when American marines did not intervene in or occupy the sovereign territory of another country.”(12) After WWII this practice was resumed with interventions in the Western Hemisphere, sometimes covert, in Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1960), Brazil (1964), the Dominican Republic (1965), Chile (1973), Grenada (1983), and Panama (1989).(13)

In all but one case, Cuba, these interventions were directed against elected officials or governments. In the case of the Dominican Republic it traces back to the U.S. military invasion of that island in 1965 for the purpose of suppressing a popular uprising in favor of Juan Bosch, who had been elected president two years earlier but deposed by the local military. Lyndon Johnson, already escalating the war in Vietnam, sent in 26,000 troops and crushed the revolt. The inflow of Dominicans to the United States leaped by almost tenfold from the 1950s to the 1960s, reaching its highpoint of a quarter of a million during the 1980s.(14)

In Central America it was the 1980s that sent thousands fleeing. In Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, the Reagan Administration backed far right forces in bloody wars against rebellious peasants. El Salvador was perhaps the bloodiest with its ruthless Death Squads. By 1984, it is estimated that 500,000 Salvadorans had moved to the United States, despite efforts by the Reagan Administration to detain thousands. The Salvadoran population of Los Angeles grew from 30,000 in 1979 to 300,000 in 1983. The legal residents from El Salvador “admitted” during the 1970s had totaled a little over 30,000. In the 1980s it shot up to 213,539.(15)

The interventions, coups, and death squads had all received the support of the AFL-CIO and often active involvement of AIFLD [the American Institute for Free Labor Development, the U.S. labor movement’s policy arm in Latin America and a notorious recipient of CIA covert operations funding — ed.].

But it wasn’t just military intervention, overt or covert, that pushed millions of Latin Americans from their homelands. It was that other favorite policy of Corporate America and virtually every administration of the last half century or more — free trade. “Free Trade,” as a policy, isn’t just about trade; it’s about opening nations, all nations, to investment by the big corporations.

To put it another way, “Free Trade” is not simply about the market doing its thing. It’s about finding ways for these corporations to exploit low-wage labor without government intervention. Because many nations developed their domestic industry by protecting it from imports and foreign ownership, free trade policy required that these nations abandon that development strategy.

An opening was first found by U.S. capital through a policy change in which first Puerto Rico and Panama, both under U.S. control, developed the first free trade zones (FTZ). The FTZs suspended government regulations and gave the corporations a free hand. Next came the border development program in northern Mexico, with its maquiladora plants, in principle similar to a FTZ. In 1985, the Reagan Administration negotiated the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which opened countries in the region to this type of investment. Such imports as occurred were usually components that went into products then imported back into the U.S. — contributing to the trade deficit and costing U.S. jobs.

By 1992, there were 200 FTZs in Mexico and the Caribbean, housing more than 3,000 plants employing 735,000 workers. All of this was only a rehearsal for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which did more of the same.16 This, however, was only one side of  “free trade.” The other was investment by the banks in New York, London, etc. in the Third World.

In Latin America this meant, above all, the New York City banks — Wall Street. When oil money poured into these banks in the early and mid-1970s, they promoted low-interest loans to Third World countries. But then, inflation and high interest rates took hold and by the early 1980s, countries throughout Latin America were increasingly unable to pay even the annual interest. This became the Third World Debt Crisis.

The debt became the lever by which the United States and other industrial powers, with the help of the International Monetary Fund, not only ended barriers to their investment, but literally forced the redesign of many Third World economies. These would be carried out by the countries’ political leaders, but the compulsion involved, though economic, was more powerful than anything the U.S. Marines could have pulled off.

Mexico is a prime example. Here’s how I described the remake of the Mexican economy about ten years ago:

“The transformation wrought under the administrations of Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988) and Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) amounted to a basic redesign of the Mexican economy and of the corporatist practice of PRI (ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party) rule as well. In the eight years leading up to the announcement of NAFTA in 1990, prices of many necessities were raised, wages frozen, the re-privatization of the banks begun, wholesale privatization of productive enterprises carried out, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade signed (1986), long-standing tariffs and investment restrictions lifted or drastically reduced, and some 25 industries deregulated in the American manner.”(17)

Not surprisingly, the result was what any corporation would desire. Real wages in Mexico dropped by 67% from 1982 to 1991, those of Mexico’s slightly better paid industrial workers by 48%. Four dollars a day became the wage along the Mexican border as well as in the Dominican Republic.(18) Foreign investment in agribusiness and plantation farming, another side of “free trade,” also served to drive millions off the land in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean with no hope of work in their own lands. So Mexican legal immigration into the United States rose from 640,294 in the 1970s to 1,655,843 in the 1980s, 3,541,700 in the 1990s, and 876,823 from 2001 through 2005.(19)

Largely because of the origin of much of the immigration, the biggest demographic impact on the U.S. workforce has been the affect of Latin American immigration on the Latino workforce. Between 1985 through 2004. Latinos nearly doubled their percentage in the civilian labor force (from 6.7% to 13.1%), surpassing Blacks as the largest minority group. From 1995 to 2004 over 7 million Latinos joined the U.S. labor force, accounting for 46% of the total gain in that period.

By 2004, 54% of the Latino civilian U.S. labor force were foreign-born.(20) Whereas the number of employed foreign-born Asians has remained stable in recent years, the number of Latinos has grown by 15% in just four years. By far the largest number come from Mexico. Measured by the flow of legal immigration, the number of Mexicans rose from 1.7 million in the 1980s to 3.5 million in the 1990s, and 875,823 from 2001 through 2005. The number of “unauthorized” Mexican entrants from 2000 through 2005 was estimated at 1.3 million, so that the total  entering from Mexico in that period would be well over two million.(21)

While Latino immigrants can be found almost anywhere, including for example, meatpacking plants on the Great Plains and deep South, as can Asians, they tend to be concentrated in large numbers in a few urban areas, notably New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami.(22) The major Latino ethnic groups in these cities are different: Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in New York; Mexicans and Central Americans in Los Angeles and Chicago; Cubans in Miami, etc. By 2000, in New York 27% of the population was Latino, in L.A. it was 47%. By most accounts, the new immigrant populations have contributed to economic revitalization in areas like L.A. and New York hit by de-industrialization in the 1970s and 1980s.(23)

In terms of the destination of most legal immigrants, four states, California, New York, Florida and Texas, account for the lion’s share of the annual flow. In 2005, these four states absorbed over half of those “admitted,” including those with an adjustment of status. Nevertheless, the geographic pattern of destinations and residency has changed over the years with more immigrants so that by 2005 28% of the immigrant population lived in the South.

Some Southern states with little or no previous history of immigration,  such as Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina, passed the half million mark in the 21st century. By 2005, immigrant workers in the South composed 32% of the employed foreign-born U.S. workforce.(24)

Earnings and Occupations

On average, immigrant workers earn significantly less than native-born workers (see Table 1). A foreign-born wage and salary worker’s median weekly earnings are about three-quarters of those of a native-born worker. Somewhat surprisingly, however, white and Black immigrant earnings are on par with natives of the same ethnicity, while Asians are fairly close.

Table 1 – Median Weekly Earnings: Foreign-born
& Native-born by Ethnicity, 2005

% of Native

Source: BLS, “Foreign-Born Workers: Labor Force Characteristics
in 2005,” USDL 06-640, April 14, 2006, Table 5,

In addition, both white and Asian foreign-born workers earn more than native-born whites. This is because most European and many Asian immigrants are professionals and come from middle-class or higher social backgrounds. Reflecting their class backgrounds, Asian males in the United States are four-and-a-half-times more likely to have a college degree than Latino males, over three-times more likely than Black males, and 80% more likely than white males. Among women, almost four-times as many Asians have college degree as Latinas, two-and-a-half-times as Black women, and almost twice as many as white women.(25)

In the case of Blacks, given the particular nature of American racism, it is also often the case that Caribbean Blacks are favored over native Blacks for certain jobs. Another aspect is that Caribbean Blacks were able to move ahead of African Americans in construction in part because of skills acquired in their native country.(26) Foreign-born Blacks and Latinos, however, remain well behind native whites. At the economic bottom of the immigrant population are Latinos, the largest immigrant group by far. The great majority of this group comes from peasant or working-class backgrounds. Much of the answer to their fate lies in the occupations in which they have been able to find work and in the restructuring of industries in which these occupations are concentrated.

Foreign-born workers are far more likely to be concentrated in manual or service occupations than are native-born workers. (See Table 2.) These jobs have either been traditionally low paid, such as food preparation and serving, or became so due to industrial restructuring in the last two or so decades, such as building maintenance, construction, and even production jobs.

Table 2 – Foreign and Native-born Employed by Occupation, 2005
(percent distribution)

  Food prep.
  Cleaning, Maint.
Sales & Office
Natural Res., Const.
Production, Transp.

Source: BLS, “Foreign-Born Workers: Labor Force Characteristics in 2005,” USDL 06- 640, April 14, 2006, Table 4.,

Into these low-paying jobs, above all, Latino immigrants have flowed in the last twenty years. The sheer numbers and wider geographic distribution of various Latino groups mean they have been most available to fill the expanding number of such entry-level jobs in the U.S. economy in recent years. The large proportion of Latinos among the growing undocumented population means they are more vulnerable to extreme exploitation on a larger scale than most other groups.

To get a better idea of just where the two major immigrant groups fit in the workforce, we will look at the occupational distribution of Latinos and Asians. (See Table 3.) By 2005, foreign-born workers composed 15% of the labor force. Almost half (49%) were Latinos, while 22% were Asians.(27) Both groups have had a long presence in certain industries and occupations going back decades or further. Nevertheless, the rapid growth in numbers of both groups gives them a special place in the changing demographics of the U.S. working class.

Table 3 – Major Occupational Groups of Asians and Latinos, 2004
(in thousands & percent)

Total (000s)
% Asian
% Latino
5,988 (100%)
17,964 (100%)
Managerial, Professional
2,718 (45%)
3,106 (17%)
977 (16%)
4,340 (24%)
Sales & Office
1,383 (23%)
3,830 (21%)
Const., Main. & Natural Resources
263 (4%)
3,223 (18%)
Prod. & Trans.
682 (11%)
3,447 (19%)

Source: Statistical Abstract, 2006, 401-405.

Table 3 shows the percentage of the major occupational groupings of each of the two ethnic groups, including both native-born and foreign-born. The first thing to notice is that 45% of Asians are in the managerial and professional category, compared to 17% of Latinos. Again, this is to some degree a reflection of the different levels of education and class backgrounds of the two groups.

To some extent this is shown by the fact that while 15% of legal immigrants in 2005 fell into the “employment-based preference” category, 33% of Asians entered or had visas renewed on that basis. Still, there are also the New York taxi drivers from the Indian subcontinent and the garment sweatshop workers in New York and Los Angeles from China. Nevertheless it is clear that Latinos, in particular, have less educational advantage and fall into many of the poorer-paying working-class occupational groups.

Latinos have high percentages in many building trades occupations, as well as in building maintenance, food preparation, housekeeping, apparel, and other low-paying jobs. In one occupation, drywall installers, they are almost half the national workforce at 47%.(28) What seems clear is that Latino workers, whether native-born or immigrant, flowed into some of the lower-paying occupations more out of necessity than choice.

The claim is raised by some that the rapid growth of immigrant Latinos in the workforce has had a negative impact on wages. In any overall sense, the answer has to be no, because the timing would be wrong: For an increase in the labor force to depress wages would take a while to work its way through the economy, but real weekly wages of production and nonsupervisory workers began their decent well before the major upswing in immigration numbers or Latino labor force participation of the 1980s and 1990s.

The actual causes of that fall in wages were the recession of 1974-75, the “stagflation” that followed into the 1980s, and the wage concessions that began nationally with the 1979 Chrysler bailout and spread throughout industry from the early 1980s onward.

Furthermore, if there were to be an overall negative impact on wages, one would expect it to come in the wake of the enormous increase of immigration from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. This would presumably raise unemployment and depress wages. Yet unemployment rates in fact fell and real wages rose after 1995 until the recession of 2000.(29)

Competition for jobs between immigrants and natives is blunted by the “ethnic niche” or  “queue” phenomenon described by sociologist Roger Waldinger.(30) That is, Latino workers are entering jobs abandoned by other groups, often as a result of industrial or occupational restructuring, so that competition is minimal. Janice Fine summarized this argument as it relates to African Americans:

“Nelson Lim’s analysis of significant African American labor market niches in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and Chicago in 1970 and 1990 showed an overall pattern of succession, as opposed to competition between African Americans and Immigrants. Roger Waldinger also concludes that there is no direct evidence to show competition between African American and immigrant workers.”(31)

It would be naïve, however, to deny that there is some level of competition between newer immigrant groups and other working-class people. Space in cities is finite and the transition from one group to another in a given neighborhood is full of friction. An organizer for the worker center Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFÉ) observed of his mainly African-American members, “What I kept hearing was that Hispanics are taking over the neighborhood.” While he stated that they exaggerated, there was a problem of friction.

While employment levels are more flexible, there can be friction in this arena too. Yet there appears to be a strong tendency today, as there was a century ago, for various ethnic immigrant groups to concentrate in particular occupations or industries in a given geographic region where jobs were being or had been abandoned by native-born workers.

In Los Angeles, for example, the building maintenance workers are heavily Mexican and Central American, as are the dry wall installers, and the truckers on the waterfront. In New York, Latino immigrants are found in fruit and vegetable stores and restaurant kitchens, but also construction, while Indians and Pakistanis drive cabs, etc. In these cases, there is little evidence of competition with other groups of workers.

[The second part of this essay will appear in our next issue.]


  1. Nigel Harris, The New Untouchables: Immigration and the New World Worker, London, Penguin Books, 1995, pp. 2-20; Kim Moody, Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy, London & New York, Verso, 1997, 41-84.

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  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, News, “Labor Force Characteristics of Foreign-Born Workers in 2004,” USDL 05-834, May 12, 2005, Table 1.,; U.S. Department of Commerce, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2006, Washington, DC, 2001, 44, 45; 2006, 46.

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  3. Min Zhou, “Chinese: Divergent Destinies in Immigrant New York,” in  Nancy Foner (ed.), New Immigrants in New York, New York, Columbia University Press, 2001, 145.

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  4. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2005, Table 1,

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  5. Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2005, Tables 3 & 10; U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1997 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, October 1999, 25-26,

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  6. Statistical Abstract, 2006, 45; Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Foreign-Born Workers: Labor Force Characteristics in 2005,” News, USDL 06-640, April 14, 2006, Table 4,

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  7. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2005, Population Estimates, Office of Immigration Statistics, August 2006, 5.

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  8. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Temporary Admission of Nonimmigrants to the United States: 2005, Population Estimates, Office of Immigration Statistics, July 2006, 1-5.

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  9. Statistical Abstract, 2006, 46, 395; Population Estimates, August 2006, 5; BLS, “Labor Force Characteristics,” 2005,; U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2005, Table 21, n.p.,

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  10. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, Population Estimates, February 2006, 4.

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  11. DHS, Yearbook  2005, Table 10,; INS, 1997 Statistical Yearbook, 40-41.

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  12. Sidney Lens, The Forging of the American Empire, New York, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1971, 269-271; Gonzales, 58-60.

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  13. Sims, Beth, Workers of the World Undermined: American Labor’s Role in U.S. Foreign Policy, Boston, South End Press, 1992, 6; Juan Gonzales, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, New York, Penguin Books, 2000, 77.

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  14. Gonzales, 117-119; INS 1997 Statistical Yearbook, 26.

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  15. Gonzales, 138-139; INS, 1997 Statistical Yearbook, 26.

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  16. Kim Moody and Mary McGinn, Unions and Free Trade: Solidarity vs. Competition, Detroit, Labor Notes, 1992, 1-11; Gonzales, 228-229.

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  17. Kim Moody, “NAFTA and the Corporate Redesign of North America,” Latin American Perspectives, Volume 22, Number 1, Winter 1995, 95-103.

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  18. Moody, 1995, 102; Gonzales, 239.

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  19. INS, 1997 Statistical Yearbook, p. 26; DHS, Yearbook, Table 3.

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  20. U.S. Department of Labor, Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 129, No. 5, May 2006, 59- 60; Statistical Abstract, 2006, p. 388; 2000, 404; 1990, 380; 1984, 406; BLS, “Foreign-Born Workers 2005, 2006, Table 1,

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  21. INS, Statistical Yearbook, 1997, p. 26; DHS, 1997 Statistical Yearbook, Table 3, 1999,; DHS, Population Estimates, August 2006, 7.

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  22. Louise Lamphere, Alex Stepick, and Guillermo Grenier (eds.), Newcomers in the Workplace: Immigrant and the Restructuring of the Workplace, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994, 1-19.

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  23. David Halle, Robert Gordon, and Andrew Beveridge, “Residential Separation and Segregation, Racial and Latino Identity, and Racial Composition of Each City,” in David Halle, New York & Los Angeles: Politics, Society, and Culture a Comparative View, Chicago, University  of  Chicago Press, 2003, 150-159.

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  24. Statistical Abstract, 2006, 44, 46; BLS, “Foreign-Born Workers,” 2006, Table 6,

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  25. Statistical Abstract, 2006, 147.

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  26. Roger Waldinger, Still the Promised City?African-Americans and New Immigrants in Postindustrial New York, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1996, 254-299.

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  27. Bureau of Labor Statistics, News, “Foreign-Born Workers: Labor Force Characteristics in 2005,” USDL 06-640, 1.

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  28. Statistical Abstract, 200-2005, 385-388.

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  29. Statistical Abstract, 2001, 386; Labor Research Association—Online March 2001.

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  30. Waldinger, 94-136, passim.

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  31. Janice Fine, Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2006, 69.

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ATC 127, March-April 2007