PBS Premiere: June 22, 2004Check the broadcast schedule »

Overview: Wave of Immigration

Farmingville in Context

One highly visible manifestation of the unprecedented growth of the U.S. foreign-born population that occurred during the 1990s is the presence of Latino day laborers. Menial workers from Mexico and Central America represent the greatest number of legal and illegal immigrants coming to America in recent years. In fact, the longest, largest, and most continuous labor migration anywhere in the world is that from Mexico to the United States. An International Herald Tribune article stated in 2003 that "nearly one Mexican in five regularly gets money from relatives employed in the United States, making Mexico the largest repository of such remittances in the world, according to a poll sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank."2

As communities of all sizes struggle to cope with seemingly overnight demographic changes, the issue of Latino day laborers is often seized upon to channel feelings of fear and resentment vis-à-vis community transition. The complaints of lost business, litter, catcalls, and other problems that have arisen in Farmingville are hardly isolated. Across the country, communities both large and small are expressing a need for effective solutions to day labor challenges.

As demonstrated in Farmingville, rapid immigration to local areas can shock communities and lead to significant tension. Since research indicates that immigrants tend to stay in a newly settled area for a long time, the issues need to be addressed, or the situation can explode into a "lose-lose" situation for everyone involved. Comprehensive and collaborative approaches involving all concerned parties are needed to reach successful solutions to day laborer issues on one level, and overall community health on another.

As the documentary "Farmingville" vividly demonstrates, successfully resolving these challenges is by no means easy. Farmingville is not alone in its struggles. San Rafael, California is another community whose efforts to organize and find a solution to day labor issues was derailed when anti-immigrant groups seized upon the situation to promote their larger agendas. With the disputes unresolved, the controversy continues and community tension runs high. This type of community discord is beneficial to no one.

The communities that successfully address the issues related to population change are the ones that accept the fact that the newcomers will most likely become long-term residents. Not only does this allow communities to move ahead in resolving contentious issues, it is also greatly beneficial to their economic and social well-being.

Integration, rather than "inclusion" or "incorporation," usually emphasizes that it is not only immigrants who need and want inclusion, but also the larger society that needs to open up and change to allow them in. This is a two-way process -- and a process that is not about absorption but change.

Multicultural society is a fact of American life. Communities can benefit from their diversity by acknowledging the economic contributions of foreign-born residents, establishing policies that promote their full economic and social potential and stopping barriers to immigrants' integration.

Integration really entails several different activities:

  • Formal, rather than clandestine, inclusion in the labor market;
  • Inclusion in mainstream institutions and activities that meet individual and
    societal needs -- education, health and social care, housing;
  • Inclusion in the institutions and obligations of civic society;
  • Building good community relations and trust.

Next: Historical Background »

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Micah Bump is a Research Associate at Georgetown's Institute for the Study of International Migration. His work focuses on new settlement areas, immigrant integration, human trafficking, and remittances.

1 Schmidley, Dianne, 2003. "The Foreign-Born Population in the United States: March 2002." Current Population Reports, P20-539, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, D.C.
2 Thompson, Ginger. 2003. "Money from U.S. sustains Mexico -- Relatives' payments help support 25% of citizens, poll finds." International Herald Tribune, October 29, 2003.