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In Phoenix, Foreign-Born Workers Find Jobs Faster

Job seekers read their resumes as they stand near a bulletin board with job posting fliers on it at the Arizona Workforce Connection West Valley Career Center in Phoenix. Foreign-born workers have had better employment prospects than U.S. natives.
Ross D. Franklin
Job seekers read their resumes as they stand near a bulletin board with job posting fliers on it at the Arizona Workforce Connection West Valley Career Center in Phoenix. Foreign-born workers have had better employment prospects than U.S. natives.

One thing is lagging in the recovery from the Great Recession — jobs. But one demographic group, foreign-born workers, has been gaining jobs back faster than its native-born counterparts.

In 2010 — the year after the recession officially ended — U.S.-born workers lost 1.2 million jobs while foreign-born workers gained more than a half-million jobs.

But why are foreign-born seemingly doing better than others?

'A Tale Of Two Workers'

Mareena Sweat and Luis Valantan live in Phoenix and are both struggling to find work since the recession.

Sweat was a business analyst. Her job was to improve efficiency for the worldwide shipper DHL. "I spent 12 years there and I probably would still be there ... if they hadn't had to reduce the workforce," Sweat says.

Luis Valantan was in construction, working on concrete foundations and walls. "The companies were like, 'We have no more jobs so try to look for another job, guys. Good luck.' "

Sweat is a native of the U.S. She was born in Phoenix.

Luis Valantan is foreign-born, a native of Mexico City.

That single difference makes it statistically more likely that one will find work before the other.


Sweat sits at her kitchen table while her five dogs wander in and out of her home in Phoenix's suburban East Valley. She spends her days applying for jobs online and going to occasional interviews.

"I would like to [earn] around ... $25 an hour, what I was making before," she says. "At this point, anywhere $15 and up I could see taking that."

Right now, Sweat is collecting unemployment. She calculates that works out to $6 an hour. While she looks for jobs, she's enrolled in a part-time online MBA program.

She could move to another city for work, but she says her entire support system is in Phoenix — her partner, her friends and her elderly mother.

"I hate to say this. I'm 43 years old and I still can say, 'Hey, Mom, you know what, I have a bill that's due and I don't have any money. Can I have $50?' "

Sweat says her German mother will briefly hesitate before she hands her daughter the money. But "she's always there for me," Sweat says.


Valantan's support system isn't that strong. He came to the U.S. for work at age 16 and moved from Los Angeles to Phoenix six years ago because of the construction boom here. Then, in 2008 the bottom dropped out.

"At the time I was really worried about it, I was really scared," Valantan says. "I'm a single father with three kids."

Valantan can't collect unemployment, because he has no papers. He knows how to fix cars, so he turned to that, but he says people are putting off maintenance and repairs.

I was really worried about it. ... I'm a single father with three kids.

So he began carrying his tool kit in his car to help motorists stopped by the side of the road.

"I help this guy and he gave me $20 just to help him out changing his tire so that was a pretty cool idea for me. And I said, 'I'm going to stop every time I see a car on the freeway especially.' "

Valantan has been offered a part-time job installing car alarms for $30 a day. And he says he's taking it.

The Difference Is A Safety Net

"I think it's flexibility and a certain desperation," says Maria Echeveste, head of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division during the Clinton administration.

Echeveste says flexibility and desperation are two reasons foreign-born workers are getting jobs. Especially low-skilled workers, and people in the country illegally. "If they don't have a safety net for food and housing, they're going to be scrambling to find any job, at any price, under whatever conditions," she says.

Foreign-born workers tend to be younger, and younger people in general are more flexible. But flexibility is only part of it.

Foreign-born workers may be recovering from the recession sooner because they suffered from it earlier.

Rakesh Kochhar, researcher with the Pew Hispanic Center, says Hispanic construction workers, for instance, lost their jobs an average of nine months earlier than U.S.-born workers.

And Kochhar says, "Often the harder the ball bounces down, the harder it seems to rebound sometimes."

A Changing Workforce

Kochhar first crunched the numbers and spotted the trend that foreign-born workers were recovering faster. He thinks it's a short-term trend that will even out. But he says the workforce also seems to be changing long-term.

Younger foreign-born workers are replacing aging native-born workers.

That could account for some of the tension in the Phoenix area over immigration. And Kochhar says there's another trend affecting middle-class workers of all kinds.

"There is research suggesting that more and more, the U.S. economy is creating jobs not in the middle of the skill spectrum but more at the low end and the high end," he says. "People are calling this 'job polarization.' "

And job polarization hurts those traditionally in the middle — native-born workers like Mareena Sweat.

"Even with my experience, even with my education, even with my skill set, there [are] so many other people that have exactly what I have," she says.

Still, Sweat says she is optimistic she'll find good work, and she hopes the MBA she's working toward will help her.

Meanwhile, those without access to education or government support continue to take any job they can get.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.