Over the past 40 years, the city of San Jose, in the Santa Clara Valley of northern California, has experienced explosive population and economic growth, fueled by the development of the high-technology industries. Along with the need for large numbers of engineering, technical, and managerial workers, the rapid industrialization of the Santa Clara Valley generated a huge demand for workers in unskilled, low-wage occupations, especially in the manufacturing assembly and maintenance service sector. This vast supply of unskilled, low-wage jobs played a central role in attracting immigrant workers to the region, especially from Mexico and Central America. As Latino immigrant workers have settled in San Jose, there has been an expansion of low-income urban enclave, especially in the Eastside where most of these workers live. In contrast to urban slums resulting from economic decline, these poor immigrant enclaves are the relatively new result of the successful, but highly unequal, economic development generated by the so-called Silicon Valley’s high-technology industries.
This study is based on ethnographic fieldwork; it seeks to describe and analyze the experiences of a group of Mexican immigrant workers and families who live in low-income barrio in San Jose that we call Benfield. The study reveals that Mexican immigrant workers, both legal and undocumented, in Benfield are concentrated in precisely those labor-intensive, low-income jobs that since the early 1980s have proliferated at one of the highest growth rates in the region. We argue that the use of immigrants as a source of flexible, disposable labor in several light-manufacturing and service industries in Silicon Valley is the primary factor that keeps a large segment of immigrant families trapped in poverty, despite there being more than one full-time worker in the family. We show that the subsistence of immigrant workers and their families depends on several strategies for coping with poverty: extended households and dense social networks; informal income-generating activities supplementing the low wages in the formal sector; and material and economic assistance from charities and, residents are eligible, government institutions.
We argue that in the absence of state and local government policies, today’s Latino immigrant poor could become further impoverished and their communities evolve into areas of concentrated poverty. The challenge is to develop a comprehensive set of coherent, well-orchestrated state policies that address not only the complex consequences but also the root causes of the problems that afflict working poor immigrant families and the barrios where they live. Our policy recommendations have two goals: first—and this is the main front where the battle against the growth in the number of working-poor immigrants must be fought—to decrease the comparative advantage of exploiting undocumented immigrant labor, second, to develop specific state policies tailored to low-income Latino immigrant communities, policies that, in light of the economic and demographic changes that have been taking place in California over the past few decades, are long overdue.