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Businesses see benefits from growing immigrant workforce

The country’s immigration issues and changing demographics are also at play in Mississippi where there is no official count of immigrants but many communities are seeing an influx of Mexican immigrants. The U.S. Census Bureau says the nation’s minority population has reached 100.7 million, according to national and state estimates by race, Hispanic origin, sex and age.

One year ago, the minority population totaled 98.3 million. Hispanics accounted for almost half of the national population growth of 2.9 million between July 1, 2005 and July 1, 2006.

Tremendous growth

Bill Chandler, director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, said the Latino population in the state has grown tremendously. His organization estimates the number to be approximately 100,000. A large part of that growth has been fueled by hurricane rebuilding on the Coast where he says there were approximately 30,000 Latinos before the storm and probably 40,000 now.

“In the 1970 census, there were 10,000 Latinos, but I don’t think it was accurate,” he said. “It was 38,000 to 40,000 in the 2000 census, and I think that was undercounted, too. We know it was more than that.”

A survey done by the Census Bureau in 2005 didn’t help obtain an accurate count either in Chandler’s opinion because Jackson was the only city counted and it has traditionally had a small percentage Latino population.

“The cost of living is higher in Jackson, and from there it’s not easy to get to places of employment,” he said as reasons for the Capital City’s low immigrant population. “They live in Scott and Leake counties and work in the poultry industry. As they settle out and start buying houses, they will move into other areas around Jackson.”

Making contributions

“Immigrants bring a lot into the state; their labor and they pay taxes and Social Security and contribute a tremendous amount of revenue,” Chandler said. “Most don’t file income taxes. We can’t keep count, but we estimate the majority that is here are undocumented.”

Gabriela Ungo, a member of the Walker Ungo Immigration Law Firm in Tupelo, agreed with that estimate. “There’s been a shift from big cities to smaller places to find jobs. A lot are looking for construction jobs after Katrina,” she said. “All over the Mid South, we’re seeing an increase. Some come on visas and overstay their visit.”

Once the visa expires, the immigrants can not go home. If they do, they are barred from returning to the U.S. for eight to 10 years. That’s why they don’t go home and continue to stay here illegally.

“The problem is there’s a demand for these low-skill jobs and not many legal ways to obtain a limited number of visas available — 65,000 for a whole year — and they were all gone on the first day,” she said. “It’s easy to fall into an undocumented status. Maybe a student drops the number of hours he’s taking to keep him legal.”

Ungo feels immigrant labor means a lot to the U.S. economy, but the system needs to be changed to control immigration and know who’s here. The bubble will continue to grow as the nation waits for Congress to act on the proposed immigration law.

“If enacted, the changes will bring people out of the shadows and will benefit small businesses,” she said. “If the U.S. economy maintains the same rate of growth, it must maintain low-skill labor because the native born people don’t fill these jobs. As the native population becomes better educated, we will have less people to fill low-skill jobs and will need more immigrant workers.”

She attributed the growth of the housing market to the input of the immigrant workforce. Small businesses in Mississippi are also benefiting, Ungo believes. “The only way right now for some of them to stay in business is with immigrant workers,” she said. “We will have good economic growth with immigrant reform and it will bridge a gap as the demographics are changing.”

Needed skills

Ungo feels the U.S. also needs to recruit immigrants with high skills and education. Most of the cases Ungo represents are business related and deal with immigrants in this category.

She is a native of Costa Rica, and her physician husband is from El Salvador. He completed his medical studies in Miami, then came to Houlka to work in a medically under-serviced area. Nine years ago they relocated to Tupelo, and Ungo said they’re happy in the family-oriented city.

Chandler predicted the Latino population in the state will continue to grow in the Delta and along the Coast. “As more African-Americans graduate and have other choices, more immigrants will work in farming, forestry and the hospitality industry, especially on the Coast,” he said. “That trend began before Katrina. A lot of immigrants from Africa are working in the hospitality industry in Tunica County.”

His organization, formed in 2000 to help immigrants, represents all immigrants with services and assistance. The largest growing group is Latino and the second is Asian, along with a large community of immigrants from India and Pakistan in the Jackson area.

“We now have a lot of Chinese, Latino, Indian and Thai restaurants,” he said. “People are enjoying culinary delights here that those in other places have enjoyed for decades and our tastes are diversifying.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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