- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

Illegal aliens, long a vital component of the nation’s agricultural work force, are swapping hoes and spades for jackhammers and feather dusters.

Fifty years ago, as many as 90 percent of all undocumented workers came to the U.S. to work in agriculture-related businesses. But while farms and rural meat-packing and poultry-processing plants still rely on cheap, immigrant labor, illegal aliens increasingly are flocking to urban areas for work.

And with the Washington area’s relatively strong economy and building boom, the region is home to one of the nation’s fastest-growing communities of illegal aliens, immigration analysts say.

“They’re everywhere — and they’re doing all kinds of work,” Georgetown University professor William McDonald said.

The types of jobs filled by the region’s illegal aliens fall mostly in two categories: construction and related jobs, including landscaping, roofing and general day-labor work, and the service industry.

“In this region, we don’t have a lot of manufacturing — we never have — but there is a lot of construction, due to the strength of the economy and the growth of the suburbs in this region,” said Audrey Singer, an immigration fellow at the nonprofit Brookings Institution in Washington.

“Then there is also a whole slew of service-sector jobs that these immigrants are finding, including restaurant jobs and domestic work in people’s homes.”

The region’s immigrant population is considerably more diverse than elsewhere in the U.S. The most notable difference is that Washington’s Mexican population, both legal and illegal, is disproportionately smaller than other markets.

Instead, immigrants from El Salvador make up the largest local contingent of foreign nationals who have crossed the border unlawfully, although communities from other Central American nations, as well as Mexicans, Asians and Africans, also live in the area.

“What happens with a lot of these immigrant communities is that there is an initial settlement for whatever reason, and then when someone else is looking to immigrate, they say, ‘Where can I go where somebody will help me get a job and get settled?’ ” said Jeff Passel of the nonprofit Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

Pinpointing with any certainty the number of illegal aliens in the region, where they live and where they work is impossible. But with census figures putting the Washington metropolitan area’s foreign-born population at more than 1 million, some analysts say as many as one-third are here unlawfully.

Mr. Passel estimates that 300,000 illegal aliens live in the area — an increase of about 100,000 since 2000.

Most illegals in the area live in the suburbs, with only about 15,000 to 30,000 in the District.

About 40 percent of all foreigners living unlawfully in the U.S. initially arrived legally with a valid work, tourist, student or other visa, but stayed once the document expired, Mr. Passel said.

“This is certainly a group that doesn’t get much attention,” he said. “And it’s a group that has valid Social Security numbers.”

Locally, that number could be even higher. Many within Washington’s large Salvadoran community initially were granted “temporary protected status,” which Congress gave to thousands of Salvadorans fleeing civil war and natural disasters since the 1980s. Many stayed after their protected status expired, either unwilling or unable to return to their home country.

“There isn’t a lot for many of them to go back to — their homes or villages and their industries and their local economies have been destroyed,” Miss Singer said. “So having this legal limbo with temporary protected status doesn’t necessarily encourage them to go back, but it doesn’t necessary encourage them to invest [in their community] while they’re here, either.”

Finding and deporting foreign nationals who have overstayed visas isn’t easy. Because so many communities, including Washington, rely heavily on cheap immigrant labor, authorities often are reluctant to hunt down illegal aliens, Mr. McDonald said.

“Internal enforcement is a joke. Nobody really takes immigration law that seriously,” he said.

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