COLLEGE STATION — China in the not-too-distant future could well rival Mexico as one of the sources for low-wage workers coming into the United States, contends Dudley L. Poston Jr., a Texas A&M University sociologist who also directs the institution’s Asian studies program.
For decades, Mexico has been in the forefront in supplying the United States — especially Texas and California — with immigrant workers to fill low-wage jobs, observes Poston, who studies demographic trends in the U.S. and in China.
“That’s about to change, in the wake of an unprecedented decline in Mexican immigration and a new influx of Chinese immigrant workers who could very likely be fleeing hopeless conditions in China,” he notes.
Many of them will enter the U.S. as undocumented, Poston predicts.
“These developments will cast in sharp relief the inherent contradictions in the practices comprising our current immigration 'policy'. These immigrants from China will likely galvanize support from the several million Chinese Americans already in the U.S. to rationalize the policy once and for all,” he adds.
Most Chinese immigrants will be of prime working age, and their paychecks could help fortify the Social Security and Medicare trust funds in the U.S., the professor notes, adding they could be viewed as “another welcome measure of human ambition from Asia.”
He says Mexican immigration — legal and undocumented — now stands at an all-time low and may have even stopped.
“For the first time in 60 years, the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative,” he points out, citing Princeton’s Douglas Massey, who co-directs the Mexican Migration Project. “ Also, a report by Mexico’s National Statistics Institute noted recently that “in the first quarter of 2011 . . . the net migration balance was almost nothing.”
This is occurring, Poston notes, because of five factors, two in the U.S. and three in Mexico: unfavorable economic conditions in the U.S. along with increased border surveillance have reduced the flow of Mexicans to the U.S. Moreover, in Mexico, its low unemployment rate (around 5 percent), increased educational opportunities there, and its low fertility rate (around 2.3 babies per woman, just slightly above the 2.1 in the U.S.) have resulted in Mexicans being much more likely these days to remain in Mexico than to leave for the U.S.
In essence, Mexico is now in the process of reversing its century-old status of being a net exporter of migrants, the Texas A&M sociologist asserts.
“In China, meanwhile, an economy demanding urban manpower has precipitated what surely ranks as the largest peacetime migration in recorded human history,” he says. “Since the early 1990s, millions of rural agricultural workers — men and women — have moved to jobs in the burgeoning cities on China’s east coast, filling mostly low-level construction, manufacturing and household service jobs. They number nearly 220 million — almost half of China’s entire urban population.”
Poston says most rural Chinese move within China without official permission, as temporary urban workers, known as “floaters.”
“They are supposed to 'float' back home eventually, but most don’t,” he notes. “Instead, they join China’s unofficial and fiercely competitive low-wage urban labor markets, often filling jobs that permanent urban residents shun.”
Urban unemployment in China has turned, and will continue to turn, the floaters’ world upside down, he observes, adding that as many as 20 million floaters are unemployed — being typically first fired — and no longer can send money home.
“Unwilling to return home penniless and lose face, they also find themselves with little or no prospect of any livelihood in Chinese cities,” the Texas A&M professor notes. “Their only realistic option, reminiscent of their predecessors who sought their fortunes in California starting in the 1840s, is to seek their fortunes abroad.”
He points out that Chinese in the U.S. today form a potent interest group of Chinese Americans of more than 3.3 million nationwide.
“We estimate that millions of floaters could eventually leave China, many illegally, and that ties will draw several million of them to Chinese-American enclaves in Texas, California and elsewhere in the U.S,“ he says. “We have, in Professor Massey’s words, ‘the seeds of an enormous … flow of immigrants [to the United States] that would dwarf levels of migration now observed from Mexico.’ Those seeds today lie dormant, pending a stronger U.S. job market.”
He says opponents of immigration — including jobless American workers – will not likely welcome more foreign newcomers.
“Nevertheless, established immigration networks anchored by longstanding family ties to particular destinations in Texas, California, New York and other states will facilitate their arrival, surreptitiously or otherwise,” Poston predicts. “But the question is: Can we, a nation of immigrants, welcome them as ‘family’?”