April 13, 2009


Legal Immigrants: Why we need them more than ever. (Tamar Jacoby, 04.13.09, Forbes)

The recession hasn't changed any of the fundamental economic or demographic realities that produced the immigrant influx of the last 25 years. Americans are increasingly educated: Only 10% of U.S. men now drop out of high school to look for unskilled work, compared with 50% in 1960. Few of us want to do farm work or menial service-sector jobs. And even when we're laid off, we're much more hesitant than immigrants to relocate in order to find work.

But nor are we educated enough to keep our 21st-century knowledge economy globally competitive. Foreigners still account for two-thirds of the students enrolled in computer science and engineering programs at American universities. And the laws of supply and demand still apply.

So on the ground too, the collapse has meant less change than might be expected. As the economy has slowed, we've needed fewer foreign workers, particularly in hospitality and construction, and the influx from abroad has slowed accordingly. But there's still demand for immigrant labor on farms, in food-processing plants, in home health care and in the high-tech sector. The need is particularly acute where the work is seasonal--not even laid-off U.S. workers seem interested in traveling hundreds of miles for a three-month stint picking fruit or making beds at a resort.

And geography isn't the only issue. A recent article in The New York Times about how the recession is affecting lives at a Tennessee chicken processing plant found that even when they have been out of work for six to nine months, U.S. workers dropped from the skilled middle rungs of the workforce were not applying for the low-end line jobs still filled largely by immigrant labor. There's an economic misunderstanding at the heart of the growing rage. Workers are not identical or interchangeable, and aggregate unemployment numbers are misleading.

In the downturn, as before, immigrants are different from American workers, both more and less educated. By and large, newcomers complement rather than compete with those already here. Americans cluster on the middle rungs of the job ladder, immigrants at the low or high ends. And because they do things Americans don't, foreigners help sustain jobs for the native-born. They provide the technical expertise to keep an American company globally competitive, for example, or make it possible for a grower to continue operations in the U.S. rather than move to another country, one where farm labor is plentiful.

The result: not just continued employment for the U.S.-born supervisors on the farm, the U.S.-born technicians who tend the machinery and the U.S.-born clerical help that keeps the books, but also more work for a wide range of other businesses and other native-born workers, both upstream and down in the U.S. economy--everything from the companies manufacturing farm machinery to the banks financing farm production.

According to one estimate, every farm worker employed in the U.S. supports 3.5 additional jobs off the farm--jobs that would disappear if the grower moved operations to another country. And this isn't true just in farming. It's true in every sector where immigrants are helping to keep U.S. businesses open by doing high- and low-end work that there are few Americans to do--even in the recession.

Amnesty will help get us out.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 13, 2009 6:57 AM
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