NPR's Rachel Martin Begins to Look at the Connection Between Immigration and Income Inequality

By Jerry Kammer on January 13, 2016

On Sunday, Rachel Martin, host of NPR's "Weekend Edition", introduced one of the most important immigration stories facing the United States: the connection between immigration and income inequality. Martin said that because of the significance of the story in the presidential race, she intends to follow the story in the coming weeks. I'm writing this post in the hope that she will have the time to dig deeper into some of the issues that local people introduced in their conversations with her for Sunday's story. I'll have another post tomorrow in the same spirit.

Martin was reporting from Charlotte, N.C., the largest city in Mecklenburg County, where the Hispanic population grew from 6.5 percent in 2000 to 12.7 percent in 2014. Here is how she introduced the story:

The whole county has been enjoying an economic boom. It's a major center for banking. There's a growing tech sector. At the same time, a recent study out of UC Berkeley and Harvard ranked Charlotte dead last when it comes to economic mobility compared to other U.S. cities. That hasn't stopped an influx of immigrants. In fact, in the 1990s, the number of Hispanics in Mecklenburg County increased by 400 percent, and it's still growing. These changes in the county have led to debates over government overreach, income inequality, and immigration.

When I was a reporter, I met some of the migrants who would become part of the boom. In 2004, I spoke with many of them in the Mexican town of Altar, Sonora, about 60 miles south of the Arizona border. They were buying supplies for the illegal crossing that lay ahead, usually under the direction of a smuggler who would guide them through the desert to a rendezvous with a van or pickup truck that would take them to Tucson or Phoenix. From there, they would be driven to destinations across the country. Some told me they had learned of construction work in "Carolina del Norte".

As I listened to Martin's reporting from Charlotte, I was especially interested in her discussion with Ron Cox, the owner of a landscaping business that has long employed Hispanic immigrants. We did not learn what immigration policies Cox favors, but we did learn that he is disillusioned with politicians. "It's not about what's actually good for the state," he said. "It's not what's good for the country. It's about what keeps my party in office."

We also learned of Cox's concern about exploitation of Hispanic immigrants. "I began to see so many of the injustices, and got to see a lot of them taken advantage of," he told Martin. "It reached my core and my angst."

I'm hoping that in her future reporting Martin will try to learn something about the lives of Cox's workers. Are they earning enough to live well, or are they dependent on government services? I'm especially interested in their children. How are they doing in school? What are their prospects for achieving the upward mobility that is at the core of the American Dream?

I wonder if the children confirm or contradict the concerns about income inequality that Jorge Castaneda, the Mexican political scholar who served as Mexico's Foreign Minister in the administration of President Vicente Fox, expressed more than 20 years ago:

The United States was the land of social mobility, well-paid work and unlimited opportunities. Not anymore. A Latin-American migrant's future is often the same as his current reality: $4.50 an hour for unskilled labor for the rest of his or her life, maybe with a raise to $6 or $7 an hour, eventually.

Castaneda, an astute observer of Mexican immigration to the United States, added this admonition about the importance of upward mobility to the success of immigration:

The American Dream only works in the United States, but the United States can't work without it. Telling the migrant just over the border that everything is possible and it only depends on his own abilities, that there are no unmovable class or racial boundaries, and then breaking that promise, is an invitation to class violence.