The two waves of Hispanic labor into the United States

There have been two major waves of Hispanic labor – each leaving their mark – since the 1980s, when the 1986 immigration bill was passed with the intention of controlling migration from Latin America. These waves account for the large majority of undocumented workers. The present immigration uproar from an historical perspective is understandable once one sees how these two waves differ.
Prior to the 1980s, Hispanic immigrant labor was concentrated in agriculture. But farming stopped being a major attraction because, first, job growth died up; second, wages were better elsewhere.
The first of these two waves was what researcher Steve Striffler calls the rise of the industrial chicken, within a meat processing boom. (Striffler wrote Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food. I have commented on this excellent source before.) According to another researcher, Russell Cobb, In 1990, the U.S. exported 500,000 metric tons of chicken overseas, while in the year 2000 that figure increased five-fold to 2,500,000, as China and Russia became the two largest consumers of U.S. chicken. Latin America provided the enabling labor.
Rurally based, vertically integrated meat processing spawned into a de facto guest worker program. In 1990, 15% of meat processing labor was Hispanic. In 1998 it was 33%. In 2003 it was 43%. This was the first phase of the growth of a post-farmworker illegal workforce in the country.
Meat processing (poultry in the south, beef and pork in the Midwest) expands in other rural locations such as Duplin County, NC (turkeys) Garden City, KS (beef) and Guymon, OK (pork). From North Carolina to Arkansas, as black and white workers move up the economic ladder, Hispanics fill the labor gap. Meat processing took over from agriculture the role of the leading employment sector for illegal immigrants. In these isolated communities, Hispanic populations rose 1000% or more between the 1990 and 2000 censuses.
Reached by phone at his office at the University of Arkansas, where he is on the anthropology faculty, Striffler described how this demand for labor altered illegal immigration. During the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, new tendrils for new labor supply strung together particular communities in Latin America, labor recruiters working often at the Mexican-American border, and particular rural centers of work in the United States. Other industries benefited, for example the carpet manufacturers of Dalton, GA, which experienced a phenomenal rise in Hispanic population in the 1990s.
The second phase of the post farmworker illegal workforce began. Home construction took over from meat processing the role of leading employer in influencing expectations. Hispanic workers flowed into the residential housing boom, moving closer to these jobs in metropolitan areas throughout the United States. Hispanic employment in construction stood at 650,000 in 1990; 783,000 in 1995,; and 1,408 in 2000. The Pew Hispanic Center, which closely monitors immigration patterns, estimates more illegal Hispanics work today in construction roofing than in the meat processing industry.
This second wave of immigration brought Hispanic workers in large numbers into metropolitan areas – standing in Home Depot parking lots, for example, making themselves much more visible to the public. While the public had little problem with Hispanics producing cheap meat and rugs from isolated rural factories, they have found their presence in cities and suburbs obnoxious – and this has fueled the anti-immigration movement.