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Immigrants in the Labor Force

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If you live in and around Chicago, chances are you don't make it through a single day without encountering an immigrant at work. Immigrants drive cabs, cook and serve food in restaurants, construct high rises, run businesses, teach, practice medicine, defend the law, and sometimes even break it to get in a day's work.

Many native-born Americans imagine that work is the reason immigrants come to the United States and for the most part they'd be right. Immigrant workers drive the growth of Illinois's labor force. Twelve percent of Illinoisans are foreign-born yet they make up 17% of the total workforce. And immigrant workers are filling a gap in the state's high- and low-skilled labor sectors – they represent more than 27% of Illinois workers with doctorate degrees and over a quarter of the area's low-skilled workers.

This connection between immigrants and labor is old news -immigrants have been coming to the region for work since at least the 1840s. Through the turn of the century, immigrant labor drove Chicago's industrial expansion, building the region's transportation systems and major industries.

And long before our present-day preoccupation with the concept of the “temporary guest worker,” the federal government's Braceros Program of 1943-65 drew new waves of temporary Mexican workers to Chicago's agricultural and manufacturing industries. Many of these workers stayed, and so another program, with the dubious moniker Operation Wetback, was put into place to capture the braceros whose visas had expired.

While immigrants then and now labor in virtually every sector of the Illinois economy, their status as immigrants also means how they experience work can be very different from native born populations. Immigrants frequently work longer hours in sub-par working conditions. Their opportunities for advancement can be limited. How can a workforce that contributes so mightily to the overall economy also face so many difficulties on the job?

Chicago Matters: Beyond Borders will explore just this question and other issues related to immigrants and labor throughout the month of May.

Be sure to check out all our media partners – Chicago Public Radio, WTTW11, The Chicago Reporter and the Chicago Public Library – as they explore the complicated and compelling topic of immigrant labor.

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