Today there are over 40 million immigrants living in the United States, most of whom come seeking work to improve their earnings and living conditions. Depending on their education and skills, their social networks, government regulations, and other factors, immigrant groups tend to concentrate in specific sectors of the labor market. Volume 4, Issue 1 of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, edited by sociologist Susan Eckstein and economist Giovanni Peri, explores how new immigrant groups navigate the opportunities and constraints presented by various niches in the labor market and how they influence the economic and social fabric of American society.
Several articles survey the history of immigrant labor market niches and how they have affected local economies. Siobhan O’Keefe and Sarah Quincy investigate a labor niche—farming—created by Russian Jews in rural New Jersey in the nineteenth century that revitalized local markets and reduced the outmigration of natives from the area. Zai Liang and Bo Zhou study the occupational niches held by Chinese immigrants from the turn of the century to present day. They show that restaurants have historically provided, and continue to provide, a major source of employment for low-skilled Chinese immigrants and that these immigrants tend to use new job-finding services such as employment agencies and internet advertising. These services have also allowed Chinese-owned restaurants to expand into new geographical locations.
Other contributors analyze the divisions between high- and low- skill labor market niches. In his ethnographic study of restaurants in Los Angeles, Eli Wilson finds that Mexican immigrants primarily work “back of the house” jobs, performing low-wage manual labor with few opportunities for advancement, while English-speaking whites hold higher-paid “front of the house” jobs interacting with customers. However, bilingual second-generation Latinos are often able to bridge these two roles, increasing their chances for promotions and greater job responsibilities. Yasmin Ortiga explores the effects of programs designed to recruit middle-skill nurses from the Philippines. She finds that because the U.S. only accepts a certain number of nurses, these programs have contributed to an oversupply of trained nurses in the Philippines and increased joblessness and underemployment there.
Together, the studies in this issue contribute to a deeper understanding of how and why new immigrants gravitate to specific lines of work. They also reveal how these labor niches influence markets both within the U.S. and abroad.