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Immigrant struggles to survive with minimum wage jobs
By: Anis Filza Abdul Samad
There are 244 days until Christmas. Veronica Concha is looking forward to that day. But
not because of the presents, retail sales, or a cup of eggnog – it is the only day off she
gets all year.
Concha works six days a week at Shopko, some days
as a custodian and some days at Shopko Optical. The
one day she has free, she takes a part-time job as a
maid cleaning houses in the area, all while earning
minimum wage of $7.25 and lower.
The 32-year-old immigrant from Mexico came to the
United States in 2004 with some friends. She has
worked in a couple of places around Wisconsin but is
now residing in Eau Claire. For every dollar she
earns, she sends half of it back to her family.
Working minimum wage has its own challenges,
especially for an undocumented immigrant like
Veronica Concha remains optimistic
despite her circumstances. Photo by
Anis Filza Abdul Samad
“It is not enough to have only one job to support myself and my family,” Concha said.
“Even with three jobs, I am still struggling.”
Concha has a high school diploma and while education qualification typically doesn’t
apply with minimum wage jobs, it makes a difference for immigrants. According to Pia
Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny in their 2008 minimum wage research, immigrants with
a high school diploma earn 18% less than locals with the same educational attainment. In
general, immigrants are more likely than natives to earn less than the minimum wage.
Melissa Bonstead-Bruns, the head of the sociology department at University of
Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said fear is a huge factor for why this inequality happens widely
across the United States. Although covered by minimum wage laws, undocumented
workers paid less than the minimum wage are highly unlikely to seek legal action for fear
of revealing their undocumented status.
“They are very easily taken advantage of because they don’t want to risk being deported
or arrested. If they're not going to complain out of fear or retaliation from the
government, they can be treated however the employer wants to treat them,” BonsteadBruns said. “That's a really powerless situation for immigrants.”
Bonstead-Bruns also said there is a bias against certain immigrant categories. Among
low-skilled adults, immigrants have a lower earnings distribution than locals do and
culturally, the value placed on immigrant work is often less than what it actually is.
“If you're an immigrant who comes to the US with a PhD or originate from middle to
upper class family, I would expect that the gap would be much narrower, if not gone.”
Concha doesn’t have any family members here in the U.S., but she relies on her friends’
support to get by. On several occasions, she had to ask for her friend’s help so that she
wouldn’t be behind on her rent and bills every month. When it comes to groceries,
Concha said she carefully plans her diet everyday so that she has enough food to last until
her next paycheck.
Another major concern for Concha is getting a medical insurance. She cannot afford to
get insured and she said she tries to take care of herself as best as she can so that she
doesn’t get sick.
Thirty-four percent of immigrants lack health insurance, compared to 13 percent of
natives. Immigrants and their U.S.-born children account for 71 percent of the increase in
the uninsured since 1989, according to Center for Immigration Studies in 2007.
“I have insurance for my car, but not for myself,” Concha said, adding that the brutal
weather here in Wisconsin left her no choice but to have it in case of a breakdown.
Illegal immigrants can be found working in many sectors of the U.S. economy. About 25
percent work in farming, and other major sectors include maintenance, construction, food
preparation and serving, agriculture, and civilian labor force, according to The Pew
Hispanic Center in 2008.
“There is a mistaken perception that these immigrants are taking jobs away from
Americans,” Bonstead-Bruns said. “But what we know is that a lot of times, immigrants
who work these jobs are doing jobs that Americans won't do or won't do for the same
In Wisconsin, immigrant workers often work in dairy farms. Of the more than 12,000
hired workers on Wisconsin's dairy farms, roughly 40 percent are immigrants, a jump
from five percent just 10 years ago, according to UW-Madison associate professor Jill
Harrison, who has written several studies on migrant labor in the dairy industry. The
reliance on hiring immigrants increases with the size of the farm. The majority of
immigrant workers – 88.5 percent – come from Mexico, while most of the rest come
from Central and South America.
“The perception that immigrants, particularly undocumented, are coming in and stealing
American jobs is entirely a myth. They're doing a service on so many levels and getting
very little in return,” Bonstead-Bruns said, adding that immigrant and local workers
generally complement each other rather than compete for the same job and thus are not
seen as a threat to the American workforce.
Concha speaks very little English and historically, that is common for immigrants when it
comes to language.
“Immigrants today are following exactly the same pattern with immigrants of 100, 200
years ago,” Bonstead-Bruns said. “First generation struggles with language, second
generation is usually bilingual, and by third generation most has lost the language of their
She added that the lack of English proficiency among immigrants shouldn’t be treated as
discriminatory, because “most Americans only need to go back a few generations and
then have immigrant heritage themselves.”
Concha said she hopes to move on to a better job some day, particularly one with medical
insurance and better paycheck but not having the proper paperwork is making it difficult.
For Bonstead-Bruns, she is pessimistic in the effort of trying to get justice for particularly
undocumented immigrants and their rights to earn at least minimum wage, or even
higher. However, she suggested one thing that could be changed to make the situation
“I think if there was a different approach to obtaining papers – maybe not citizenship –
but obtaining the visa to work. Some politicians have suggested that once you've been
here for awhile and pay your taxes a certain amount, you could be eligible for a work
visa,” Bonstead-Bruns said. “Those types of things certainly seem reasonable.”
Concha hasn’t gone back home to Mexico in 10 years and is not planning to do so
anytime soon, because it is too expensive. Concha said she rarely splurge on anything for
“The only reason I’m still here is because my family depends on me to support them.”
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