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Class Divide Widens Between Low-Wage And High-Wage Workers In Silicon Valley

By Esther Yu-Hsi Lee and Aviva Shen

"Class Divide Widens Between Low-Wage And High-Wage Workers In Silicon Valley"

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Silicon Valley

CREDIT: Jeff Chiu/ AP

Faced with a growing need for high-skilled foreign workers, Silicon Valley has taken a pointed interest in immigration reform in the past year, as is made clear by FWD.us, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s advocacy group lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform. Zuckerberg has emphasized that high-skilled immigration reform is no different than low-skilled immigration reform. Yet as the tech industry pushes for a more diverse workforce, a worsening class divide is pushing the area’s low-wage immigrants out of their homes and marginalizing them in the immigration debate.

As NPR reports this week, less than 7 miles from the Facebook headquarters lies a 4.5 acre mobile home park that is valued at $30 million by Silicon Valley real estate developers. Soon, the 400 mobile home park residents, about 80 percent of whom are Latino, may be squeezed out of the increasingly ritzy area, which has some of the most expensive homes in the country. The median household income is $101,471. In comparison, a two-bedroom, two-bath trailer home costs about $79,000.

Children living in the mobile home park would also be forced out of the sixth best school district out of 1,000 California public schools. Latino students in Palo Alto have a 52 point gain on standardized test scores over other Latinos statewide.

Some Palo Alto parents want the mobile home park to stay. Nancy Krop, a civil rights attorney said to National Public Radio, “I want every child to have the opportunity that my son’s going to have… My son has gone on play dates to homes where he found out his friend didn’t have a bedroom… You learn what they don’t have; you learn the richness of what they do have too — the strength of their community and culture and heritage.”

Silicon Valley companies have mainly focused on immigration reform for highly educated foreign workers. Technology companies spent about $13.8 million in just three months to ensure that the Senate immigration bill would expand temporary visas and green cards for technology workers. The industry successfully influencing senators to nearly double its allotment of high-skilled, H-1B visas from 65,000 to 110,000 in the Senate immigration bill.

It’s easy to see why Silicon Valley is fighting to legalize high-skilled workers. Between 2006 to 2012, immigrant entrepreneurs launched about 24.3 percent of new companies that generated $63 billion and created more than half a million jobs. High-skilled immigrant entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are also generally more educated than their U.S.-born counterparts, with a high concentration of Indian immigrants in the software industries and a concentration of Chinese immigrants in the semiconductor industries. High wage immigrant workers and foreign investors are also driving home prices up; some Chinese buyers spend an average of $425,000 on homes, especially in areas near the Apple headquarters.

But as the tech boom attracts more wealth to the region, the demand for low-wage immigrant labor has also exploded. Silicon Valley’s recent job growth is largely driven by jobs that pay less than $50,000 annually– at least two times below the annual income needed to afford the median price of a home in the area. Affordable housing within the city is out of the question; one-third of Latinos use more than 50 percent of their income on housing in neighboring San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

In East Palo Alto, Palo Alto’s much poorer neighbor, 64.5 percent of the population is Latino, and foreign-born immigrants comprise 41.2 percent of the city. Many of the U.S.-born children living in the area have at least one foreign-born parent. These immigrant communities help supply Silicon Valley with housekeepers, janitors, restaurant workers, and other low-paying services. Yet these low-wage immigrant workers are mostly invisible to technology lobby groups, which has strictly focused its financial resources on overhauling the foreign worker visa system.

What’s more, low-skilled immigrants must overcome far bigger hurdles than their counterparts in tech jobs in order to gain legal status. The Senate immigration plan would set up a points system that ranks immigrants’ eligibility for green cards based on their work experience in the U.S., education level, and other standards. Silicon Valley tech workers have a clear advantage on this metric.

Immigration raids have also targeted low-wage, low-skilled immigrants mere streets away from technology company headquarters. In 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted 52 immigration raids during “Operation Return to Sender,” which picked up hundreds of Bay Area undocumented immigrants, including one in Palo Alto.

East Palo Alto has since made great strides in improving immigrant rights. In 2008, it passed a resolution to prohibit immigration raids. In 2012, the city council passed a resolution asking the San Mateo County Probation Department to refrain from accepting ICE immigration hold requests for juvenile immigrants. Even so, ICE conducted a workplace audit on a large Latino-run supermarket. Numerous undocumented employees quit as a result.

Attitudes may be changing among the tech elite. Zuckerberg recently stressed the need for equal legalization options for high-skilled and low-skilled immigrants. His views changed when he taught an entrepreneurship class at a low-income school in East Menlo Park and met undocumented students who were unable to attend college, let alone start their own business.

“This really touched me,” he recalled in August. “It was impossible to tell the difference between [documented and undocumented students]; there was no difference between them.”

Legalization could help lift low-skilled immigrants out of trailer parks and potentially out of poverty, especially at a time when nearly 30 percent of immigrants in California live in poverty. Bringing them out of an underbelly economy where they are often exploited, would allow such immigrants to contribute more in personal income, tax revenues, and perhaps make their way back into the neighborhoods that are currently pushing them out.

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