Division of Labor: Immigration and D.C. Unemployment

While much of the country struggles with job creation, D.C. is in the unique position of having more jobs than residents. So why are some D.C. neighborhoods facing Depression-era unemployment rates? DCentric examines how D.C.’s healthy economy has left out so many Washingtonians and what some are doing to close the unemployment gap. Fourth in a series.

Tim Sloan / AFP/Getty Images

Day laborers wander the parking lot of Home Depot looking for work on Jan. 29, 2009. Day laborers have gathered at the site for years.

Like they do on most mornings, Jose Matute and Allan Hernandez recently stood in the parking lot of Home Depot in Northeast D.C. Dozens of men, mostly Latinos, joined them. They were scattered throughout the parking lot, waiting for work.

A small SUV pulled up. About six men approached, and one got in. The other five returned to their spots, hoping a job would come their way.

“We work here because we have to work,” Matute, 29, said.

While construction has slowed nationwide, development marches on in a number of D.C. neighborhoods. Meanwhile, predominately African-American wards are facing Depression-era unemployment. There is a perception among some that immigrant workers are getting hired over non-immigrants in D.C., or that they’re willing to work for less, and that this is exacerbating high unemployment.

Image: Carrie Moskal / WAMU

"Division of Labor" is DCentric's examination of D.C.'s unemployment disparity.

“They’re hiring the Spanish and people from other countries,” said Ward 8 resident Sylvester Anderson. Three months ago, he completed a 14-week long construction-training program through the city and said he’s been unable to get a steady job since. He said he spends his weekdays going to construction sites to look for work applying for jobs online.

Valarie Ashley runs Southeast Ministry, a nonprofit that provides adult education and job training in Ward 8, which is 92 percent black. She said the issue of race comes up often in conversations with unemployed African Americans who say they go by work sites where most workers are Latino.

There is a “tension,” she said. “Whenever resources are diminished, people highlight differences. When all is well, people don’t pay as much attention.”

The Numbers and the Jobs

Entry-level jobs and positions not requiring advanced degrees aren’t abundant in D.C. Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution said it’s unclear whether recent immigrants have made it more difficult for native-born citizens to find low-wage work.

“It sort of depends on who you talk to,” she said. “There’s a big debate going on… I think the evidence points to the fact that [nationally] in low-wage jobs, there has been competition” between U.S. born workers and immigrants.

It’s hard to say what impact immigrants have had in D.C. Since the 1980s, communities such as Ward 8 have consistently faced nearly double the unemployment rate than that of D.C. as a whole. The number of immigrants in D.C. has increased in the past 10 years by about 11 percent with most hailing from Latin American, according to Census figures.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates there were about 25,000 undocumented immigrants in D.C. in 2009, making up 4.1 percent of the city’s population and 6.1 percent of the workforce.

What’s Race Got To Do With It?

The national debate over immigration often becomes intertwined with race. Typically anti-immigrant sentiments are depicted as coming from whites, and they’re typically targeted at Latinos. In D.C., that’s not the case. Most of D.C.’s immigrants are Latino, and most of those living in communities with very high unemployment are black.

“This is a classic example of divide and conquer” in that blacks and Latinos are pitted against one another rather than working together on issues that affect both communities, said Pedro Cruz. He is a Georgetown University graduate student running a language exchange program between Georgetown students and day laborers.

Read More:                                   

Explaining D.C.’s Unemployment Disparities

The Gap Between Skills and Jobs

Out of Prison, Out of Work

Immigration and D.C. Unemployment


Cruz also used to be a union organizer advocating for day laborers in the Home Depot parking lot. He said many of the subcontractors who would come by to hire men for work would claim “that they want to hire African Americans to do construction work, but that they can’t pass drug tests or have the liability issues. Those are the excuses I’d hear,” Cruz said.

Arturo Griffiths is a community organizer working with day laborers on behalf of DC Jobs with Justice, a coalition of pro-labor groups. He is black and from Latin America, so he hears “it from both sides.” He noted there is frustration toward immigrant workers from some African Americans. But such sentiments aren’t as widespread as in some neighboring communities, such as in Prince William County, Va., which passed a tough immigration enforcement law in 2007.

Leo Alexander, a D.C. activist who unsuccessfully ran for mayor, has been very vocal in his opposition to illegal immigration.

“Nobody wants to deal with it because they look at this black population as being undereducated, and for whatever reason just think they don’t want to work, but that’s not the case,” Alexander said. “They have worked those jobs for generations, prior to this new influx [of immigrants], and they want those jobs back. They just don’t want to do it for illegal immigrant wages.”

Elahe Izadi / DCentric

A group of African American day laborers speak with community organizer Arturo Griffiths outside of Home Depot's parking lot. Most day laborers assembled are Latino immigrants, but not all.

John Henry, 60, who has been coming to the Home Depot parking lot for about five years, doesn’t attribute his lack of a steady job to the immigrants’ presence.

“You can’t get bent out of shape and blame people,” said Henry, an African-American native Washingtonian. “That’s scapegoating.”

“The idea that immigrants are taking the jobs is very much related to who’s doing the hiring,” Singer said. Such arguments “make the immigrants sound very active in the process, and that’s not really what’s happening.”

Employer preferences toward immigrants can be the result of many factors; networks funnel immigrants into certain professions and they become redefined as “immigrant jobs.” It also may have less to do with race than one would think; nationally, Hispanic immigrants have a lower unemployment rate than U.S.-born Hispanics, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies said employers might prefer hiring immigrant workers because there’s a perception that they’d be willing to endure poor working conditions or work for less than U.S. born workers.

“Companies and individuals are looking to make money, and they’re trying to make money with low-wage workers,” Griffiths said. “[These immigrants] are people who have to do whatever to survive.”

D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Lang said most D.C. employers are fair and just “want to hire the best person for the job.” But, she added, “I will never discount that there is some stereotyping gets done.”

Hard for Everyone

Elahe Izadi / DCentric

A day laborer waits for work in the parking lot of Home Depot. A construction site looms in the background, a sign of continuing development in D.C.

Before 2009, Ben Jamen would recall days when nearly 150 men would be in the Home Depot parking lot and most would find work. The 28-year-old now comes to the site about once a month for temporary jobs, and has noticed a considerable slow down.

Matute agreed. “It was a lot different” a few years ago, he said. “Things were very good. I worked regularly.”

Coming to the Home Depot parking lot and hoping to get a job, day after day, isn’t anyone’s dream, really. Many said they come to the site because they see few alternatives.

“The Americans who don’t work, it’s because they don’t want to do this work,” Matute said. “They have papers, know English. They can go to companies and get jobs.”

Immigrant day laborers don’t always get paid for the work they complete. Wage theft is a big problem, Griffiths said, and he often finds himself trying to recoup back pay on behalf of workers.

Some workers have aspirations beyond the parking lot, such as Hernandez: the 22-year-old wants to go back to school, improve his English and become a lawyer.

“I’d like to be in college,” he said, as cars drove past him. “I don’t want to be standing here.”

  • Anonymous

    Illegal Immigration is vastly becoming a war of–THEM and US–which
    is an invasion of people who came here to steal jobs, with the collusion of
    nationwide businesses. Every part of this country is saturated with a patchwork
    of illegal foreign neighborhoods. Scores came here under false pretenses,
    smuggling unborn babies to take advantage of laws forced upon Americans by the
    black robe activists in the courts. Judges have mishandled the 14th amendment,
    by allowing every expectant Mother who lies of their intention to enter our
    country, whether as a tourist, student or here on a business venture. These
    fetus carrying females are fully aware that if they can get a foot on to our
    soil, whatever the reason they have immediate access to free–FREE HEALTH

    This is unerringly the same circumstances on the U.S.
    Border, that a woman with a child can get free medical care. But for Americans–forget
    it, you will be hunted forever for unpaid bills, unless you are under the
    poverty level. But the 20 million, perhaps even 25 million already existing
    here, don’t pay a penny. All the time I hear that these people who slip past
    agents at the border, or managed to deceive trained inspectors at other ports
    of entry, including airline arrivals. They get immediate assistance from the
    welfare departments as they are well versed in law and where to procure forged

    H.R.140, titled the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011, was introduced on Jan
    5. 2011, by Rep. Steve King a Republican of Iowa.. As of last month, the bill
    had 80 co-sponsors. While its companion bill S.723 was read twice in the Senate
    and referred to the Committee. On April 2011, H.R.140 was referred to the House
    Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement; January 24, 2011
    where it gather Congressional dust without further action. The bill does not need
    amendment of the Constitution but rather Section 301 of the Immigration and
    Nationality Act is to explain those classes of individuals born in the United
    States who are considered nationals and citizens of the United States at birth. THIS ISSUE NEEDS THE URGENT PRO-ILLEGAL
    EXPENSES BORN BY TAXPAYERS. The Birthright Citizenship Act amends
    the Immigration and Nationality Act to clarify a person born in the United
    States “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States for
    citizenship at birth if the person is born in the United States of parents, one
    of whom is: (1) a U.S. citizen or national, (2) a lawful permanent resident
    alien whose residence is in the United States, or (3) an alien performing
    active service in the U.S. Armed Forces.


    Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) ‘THE LEGAL WORKFORCE ACT’ is also a zero-tolerance bill, that if past can outlaw illegal aliens
    from the workplace. Businesses that are violation of the law will be audited
    and the owners harshly fined and even sent to prison. It is better recognized
    by hundreds of thousands of candid companies that E-Verify will red flag
    illegal aliens, opening payroll jobs for lawful residents and the
    citizenry.  E-Verify is a progressive disincentive that is being
    continuously upgraded by the Homeland Security and ICE.  Just like H.R.140,
    titled the Birthright Citizenship Act, E-Verify ‘THE LEGAL
    WORKFORCE ACT’, H.R. 2885, is a innovation to stop this travesty of
    our immigration laws?

    Today with the failure of the numerous administrations to construct the real
    2006 Secure fence, consisting of two fences with a wide expanse in between for
    the movement of rapid interdiction of Drug, weapons and the massive influx of
    illegal migrants. What is already been built is still incomplete and droves of
    illegal aliens cross, including terrorist who are impersonating Mexican
    individuals. Neither the 1986 Immigration nor its 1974 version of these laws
    after enactment were enforced. The 1986 Immigration reform and Control Act was
    rife with fraud, and both laws have been neglected and abused. One huge lie
    played on the US taxpayer by politicians, who sold their souls to the huge
    abhorrent special interest lobbyists and open border radical entities.

    Currently it needs serious action by all patriotic Americans. This can be done by the voter contacting
    Washington 202-224-3121 and giving your name, address to the political aid and
    insisting your representative in the Senate-House uphold the law and co-sponsor
    both laws. More and more legislators are moving to co-sponsor both laws, to
    begin enforcement by Attrition, or self deportation, as jobs being
    commandeered by illegal aliens are returned to the
    rightful American workers.  The website of NumbersUSA can be Google’d,
    where you can send free faxes and read in detail about the corruption at the
    highest levels of federal and state government.

    Right now, a bunch of polling firms and news media have used
    this as a chance to do polls that manipulate questions in a way to seem to show
    that most Americans want most illegal aliens to stay, showing that pro-amnesty
    doesn’t hurt a candidate and causing rumblings through Congress that maybe it
    does make sense to reconsider amnesty over the next couple of years, after all.
    The pollsters are doing this with the Big Trick of never offering voters an
    option of Attrition through Enforcement (forcing them to choose either mass
    deportations or mass legalization).

    In short, Mr. Gingrich has revived the whole national debate on amnesty which
    had been essentially dead after you/we defeated the DREAM amnesty last
    December. Any chance for amnesty votes was essentially dead until Gingrich
    revived the idea. Whatever you may think of presidential candidate Newt
    Gingrich or his recently announced legalization plan, the fact that he has
    broken the 4-year Republican taboo against amnesty has unleashed pro-amnesty
    efforts everywhere. Any mass amnesty will ignite CHAIN MIGRATION that will be
    more billions of dollars, taken from your taxes. Gingrich amnesty calculated by
    ‘The Heritage Foundation’ could cost us $2.3 Trillion dollars, that is not
    including CHAIN MIGRATION of following family members and further attracting
    even million more to these shores or through borders—adding even more—POVERTY–
    to American low income bread lines we have now. This is Dire Poverty unseen
    since the Great Depression of 1929? This country is broke, from corruption,
    attributed to both political parties and we are facing a upward spike in the 15
    Trillion dollars we have already.

    Attn: Keep an eye on Democrats as they
    are intentionally pushing non-citizens to vote in all coming elections, that
    includes the 2011 presidential. They are also trying to change electoral laws,
    so you can register and immediately vote, using groups like the fraudulent
    canvassing of the ACORN group, that’s reappeared under another name.
    Additionally the Left is introducing legislation, so you don’t even need a
    picture ID; this to me is as close to fraud as you can get? Already there has been instances of Voter
    Fraud, including an Indiana forged signatures registration for Obama before he
    became president, that is being investigated currently.

    In conclusion, insist that Obama and
    his cronies expedite the ‘Keystone’ pipeline, as it will bring cheap oil into
    America and less need of petroleum from unfriendly countries. Its installation
    from Canada to Texas will require the hiring of 20.000 US Workers. Unless the
    present administration gets its finger out, our Northern neighbor will quite
    possibly sell this commodity to Communist China. Use the phone number above and
    tell the Democrats in Washington to do something for Americans.

  • Brimstone

    It’s not just j0bs the illegals are stealing.  They force Americans out of low income housing -which is not exactly in abundance in DC- by massing together in houses and apartments.

  • Altermundialism


    I know you tried to be fair, but I feel you framed this article in a way that pits brown against black, thus inviting the terribly racist and xenophobic comments you see here.

    The research on immigration and unemployment is mixed, but the literature as a whole suggests that immigration has little or no effect on employment levels.

    The rhetoric of brown vs. black misses out on the bigger picture – we do not treat access to work as a human right. We reward banksters who have destroyed millions of jobs. The only jobs program we can get is a cynical re-election attempt on the part of Obama.

    Immigrants aren’t benefiting from the system, African Americans aren’t benefiting, and even many white people at this point aren’t benefiting.