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Does the U.S. need more immigrant workers?

Mitchell Hartman Jul 9, 2015

Does the U.S. need more immigrant workers?

Mitchell Hartman Jul 9, 2015

Comprehensive immigration reform — the effort to create a path to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants, boost border enforcement, and overhaul the legal immigration system — is dead in Congress, at least until after the 2016 election.

But allowing more legal immigrants to come to the U.S. to work year-round is an issue that’s very much alive for employers, who are looking to fill hard manual-labor jobs that they say they can’t find Americans to do, now that the economy’s firing on all cylinders again.

The group ImmigrationWorks USA, which advocates for small and mid-sized businesses, commissioned a poll recently and found that approximately 60 percent of respondents believe the U.S. economy needs, and would benefit from, legal immigrants being admitted via a visa program to do physically-demanding, low-skilled work.

“The problem is, there’s no visa program for less-skilled people who don’t have family here,” says ImmigrationWorks president Tamar Jacoby. “If you’re a Mexican with no family living in the U.S., you have the momentous choice: hire a smuggler and walk across the desert, or hire a smuggler and walk across the desert. There’s a program for PhD scientists, and a program for agricultural workers, but no program for less-skilled people who want to work year-round.”

Ray Perryman is an economist based in Waco, Texas, who has studied the impact of immigrants on the U.S. economy.

“There is a huge demand for that type of worker, and it comes in a variety of industries: construction, hospitality, agriculture,” says Perryman. “They tend to really depend on this workforce, and not to be able to find a workforce otherwise.”

Jay Williams deals with this problem in his Houston-area landscaping business, Landscape Art. Every year, he jumps through legal hoops to hire about 30 guest workers from Mexico and El Salvador. He has to advertise for U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents first. “Four or five will come to answer the ads,” Williams says. “Maybe one or two will actually show up for work, and generally after a couple of weeks they’ll go off somewhere else.”

He admits he’s not surprised. “It’s cold in the winter, it’s hot in the summer, it’s tiring and taxing. It’s not something I would want to do at any wage.”

The landscaping jobs pay more than $11 an hour. Ray Perryman doesn’t think raising the wage would help recruit more non-immigrants. “In a market economy, if you raise wages, you might find a few more people who would do this type of work. But because of the physical demands, we’re probably going to need more of these workers than we’re going to have U.S. citizens who could reasonably fill these jobs.”

But economist Dean Baker, co-director of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., sees no pressing need for more low-skilled immigrants to fill manual labor jobs at this stage of the economic recovery. He thinks they would likely drive up competition among job-seekers, and drive down wages for millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans.

“I call this the ‘It’s hard to get good help’ crowd,” says Baker. “People would always like their employees to work for less. But is there any evidence that employers can’t find the workers that they need, that wages are going really high? Do we see this in construction, manufacturing? Really just zero.”

Tamar Jacoby of ImmigrationWorks counters that low-skilled immigrant workers don’t tend to replace low-skilled native-born workers, or compete for the same jobs. Rather, she says, the two groups fill complementary job niches: for instance, immigrants bussing tables and washing dishes at the back of a restaurant, American workers waiting tables and dealing with customers at the front; immigrants picking fruits and vegetables in the fields, American workers stocking shelves and dealing with customers in grocery stores.

“I’m not saying Americans are lazy or don’t want to do hard work,” says Jacoby. “They’re more educated than is appropriate for some of these jobs. Americans have the comparative advantage of speaking the language, knowing how things work in the U.S. And immigrants don’t. What they come with is what immigrants have always brought — their strong backs.”

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