Ever wondered why Indian immigrants are the ones who so often take your order at Dunkin’ Donuts? Or why Vietnamese families own a slew of nail salons? Or why is it that Jamaican women frequently serve as nannies for Jewish kids and their families?
Some may brand this as a stereotype of a culture or its people. And, while these ethnic clippings have found their way into the comedy fodder of “Saturday Night Live” or “In Living Color” sketches, there is truth to the jest.
It is called family-based migration, otherwise known as chain migration. It is when migrants from a particular region of their home country follow their families, friends and neighbors to a particular destination in their new country. In the U.S., conservatives have railed against the concept for the past four years, calling it a threat to American workers and national security. Meanwhile, immigrants of all shapes, colors and socioeconomic backgrounds have found solace and social stability in the family unification model within the U.S., a policy that dates back to 1965’s Immigration and Nationality Act.
However, with a new administration seeking to find a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented and partially documented immigrants in the United States, one may see a shift in the workforce. Immigrants who are likely without legal work authorization now will soon be able to climb the social ladder and vie for higher-paying positions.
Nevertheless, let’s crack the code on immigrant jobs. Why does a specific job trend higher among certain ethnic groups than others? Here are 5 jobs and the rationale for each.
1 – Indian Physicians and Engineers
Even more common than your neighborhood Dunkin’ barista is your city’s Indian doctor or engineer. As stated in the book HOLA AMERICA: Guts, Grit, Grind and Further Traits in the Successful American Immigrant, Indians make up less than 2% of the American population yet they comprise 5% of practicing U.S. doctors and 10% of the country’s medical students. Indian immigrants also make up 10% of the nation’s IT and engineering workforce. This trend stems (no pun intended) from the state policies implemented by Indian Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru in the late 1940s. He wanted the new India to be “closely linked to science” and funded learning institutions devoted to the discipline. These institutions created generations of skilled workers, many of whom would eventually leave India and seek greater economic prospects on American shores.
2 – Jamaican Nurses
Made apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, immigrants represent disproportionately high shares of U.S. workers in many essential occupations like health care. As of 2018, immigrants from Jamaica accounted for four percent of the registered nurses in the U.S. If we include LPNs, CNAs and HHAs, that number would shoot up to 15 percent. Why are citizens of such a small Caribbean island responsible for the health care of so many Americans? When nursing shortages ravaged healthcare systems in places like the UK, US, and Canada in the mid-1900s, these first-world super powers began working to attract qualified nurses from other countries. As part of the English-speaking Caribbean, Jamaican nurses were fluent in English and could pass the National Council Licensure Examination, a test used in the licensing of nurses, at higher rates than other international applications. Then, the promise of higher salaries sealed the deal. An average starting salary for a nurse in Jamaica is around $8,000 compared to the average starting salary of a registered nurse in the US, which in 2015 was $65,490. Ironically, the World Bank found that only 6% of non-migrant nurses were satisfied with their salaries, compared to 85% of nurses who migrated out of Jamaica. Hospitals recruited them at high rates and when they got their shot, they told their friends.
3 – Russian Aestheticians
Across the U.S., people clamor to visit their local aestheticians and spas due to the most luxurious facial and body treatments at the hands of a Russian practitioner. You may be conjuring up an image of Queen Latifah being beaten with a tiny bush in the movie The Last Holiday. The reason that so many Russians work in this profession is because the Russian beauty industry is one of the most well-known in the world and it stems from the country’s diverse landscape. Its land boasts copious natural resources, ranging from thermal water in the highlands to abundant muds, salt, herbs and gases suitable for holistic treatments. Banya is the famous sauna culture in Russia and is more than 1,000 years old. So, the reputation for beauty and self-care in the world served to breed these Russian jobs in America.
4 – Vietnamese and Korean Nail Technicians
The nail salon industry employs more than 380,000 technicians in the U.S. and about 42 percent of the industry is owned by Asians, with Vietnamese and Koreans leading the pack. Inspired by the trendy nail art world of Japan, the nail industry is now booming within beauty-obsessed South Korea and the United States. There are several factors that influence Asian migrants to find employment in nail salons. One, you do not have to be proficient in English in order to do the job; two, you can be paid in cash; three, the hours are somewhat flexible; and, four, if you are limited in education, you can be trained quickly on the job. “In Korea, it is an old custom to give a hand massage, say, to your grandmother,” Youngja Kim Lee, the chairperson of the Korean-American Small Business Service Center of New York told Nails Magazine in 1992. “Korean women have very small hands and excellent dexterity.” However, in 2015, the New York Times wrote an exposé into the corrupt practices of wage skimming among the Korean shop-owners. As a result, Gov. Andrew Cuomo created the New York State Nail Industry Enforcement Task Force, signed into law stricter salon regulations and required the posting of wage bonds. Interestingly, prior to the 1970s, nail salons in New York were dominated by Russians. According to NailsMag.com, Russian migrants may have vacated the industry to pursue other opportunities after mastering English.
5 – Senegalese Hair Braiders
From Adele to Beyonce, a head of thinly braided hair has been seen as all the rage in the past few years. But, it’s been around a lot longer than that. Ever since the first Senegalese immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the early 1980s, African braiding salons began cropping up all across the United States. Senegalese women came to reunite with their husbands after the Amnesty Law of 1986 was passed. By the early 1990s, more female African immigrants came on student visas. In the height of all of this migration, African Americans began embracing their own motherland roots, sparking the afro hair then braided hair revolution.
The first Senegalese hair-braiding salons opened in New York City and Washington, D.C., according to Anta Cheikh Babou, author of the article “Migration and Cultural Change: Money, ‘Caste,’ Gender, and Social Status among Senegalese Female Hair Braiders in the U.S.” For new immigrants, a hair-braiding job had great benefits despite the tension on the fingers and wrists. Knowing the English language wasn’t necessary, neither was a Social Security number or a work permit. There was no training needed as these women were taught to plait and cornrow as little girls. Many of these women were enterprising as hair-braiding offered them upward mobility, earning them $200 to $300 per head which allowed them to become six-figure earners in the United States.
The trail from one country to another tells you a story. The breadcrumbs of skill steeped in heritage and struggle offers us a window into the mindsets of our invisible or barely visible neighbors. The tongues that confuse us at a local mini-mart or restaurant are indeed a whole history lesson in how this country was shaped and how it will evolve in the new decade.
Also Read from Tiffani Knowles: 3 Ways the Pandemic is Affecting the World’s Barrel Children
Tiffani Knowles is a professor of communication and the co-author of HOLA America: Guts, Grit, Grind and Further Traits in the Successful American Immigrant and the online course series by the same name.
For immigrants interested in a pathway to citizenship, here’s a free download to all the Documents You Need to Prepare for Citizenship.
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