Chinese Immigrants Will Be The Next Undocumented Wave

Someone once asked me if I would be as outspokenly pro-immigration as I am if the immigrants were not Latino.

There is so much implied in that question that it would take at least a week’s worth of essays to unscramble it all. It implies a Latino-biased prejudice. It implies an immediate and narrow understanding of immigration. It implies a certain anti-American sentiment. And because the questioner was not Latino, it implied my being as ignorant as the person asking the question.

But a recent study done by a Texas sociologist adds another layer to the implications. Dudley Poston teaches at Texas A&M University, he’s as much of an expert in things Chinese as anyone in Texas can be. But here’s the thing: he partnered with Princeton University’s  Mexican Migration Project, crunched some population and migration numbers, and came up with an interesting conclusion. He told the Houston Chronicle in a recent interview that because migration to the U.S. from Mexico is slowing to a trickle, and because conditions in China are pushing immigrants west,

Chinese immigrants may replace those from south of the border as the go-to workers for landscaping, construction, agriculture and other unskilled labor here.

The immigration push-pull factors are the same for Chinese immigrants as they have been for Mexican and other Latin American immigrants: economic opportunity. But there are other factors to consider. Mexico’s fertility rate is dropping: it’s down to 2.2 children per-woman, where only a few decades ago it was 6 or 7. So there are fewer mouths to feed and fewer people vying for existing jobs. That reduces the number of workers traveling north in search of employment. Those who do come north find increased vigilance and violence at the border, so fewer still make it across. Those who manage the passage find fewer jobs available because of a slow economy.

According to Poston the push-pull machinations in China are a bit different:

The economy is starting to slow down in China. The first people to lose their jobs will be…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.

The best estimate is that there are already 200,000 to 300,000 undocumented Chinese workers in the U.S., mostly in the East coast and in cities like Houston and Los Angeles. And even with a better U.S. economy Mexican migration will continue to dwindle and Chinese immigration will continue to increase. Again, Poston:

In terms of legal migration, you’re talking 3 million Chinese in the United States now, including people born in China and also second- or third- or fourth-generation. Chinese-Americans are never going to overtake Mexican-Americans, but undocumented Chinese, they could overtake undocumented Mexican immigrants.

So here’s an implication we should all be thinking about: as Chinese immigrants move into the lower-rung jobs in the U.S., does that mean that Latino immigrants will be stepping up the ladder? Isn’t that the way the system is supposed to work, that new immigrants take the unskilled jobs while past immigrants work their way into the middle class and beyond? Is that what’ll happen to Latinos? Or, will the bulk of Latinos be sentenced to a permanent lower-class status? Or as the Houston Chronicle asked: Will the way people think about immigration change?

There’s so much sentiment against the Mexican population in general, even though many of them were born here and have been living in our country for three or four or five generations. There seems to be a more favorable view toward Chinese people in general, but a lot of that is because there are so few of them. That might change as the population grows larger. There is a bigger language gap, a bigger cultural gap.

What will Latinos think about immigration then?

My thinking is that it’s not too soon to be asking these questions.

[Photo by Mr. T in DC]

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