The case for low-skilled immigrants

The case for low-skilled immigrants
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Immigrant Heritage Month is intended to be a celebratory month honoring ancestors who pursued — and achieved — the American Dream. This year, however, a dark cloud looms over the June celebration. Under President TrumpDonald John TrumpShocking summit with Putin caps off Trump’s turbulent Europe trip GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE’s immigration policies, many immigrants are finding their dreams revoked.

I’m referring specifically to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, temporary protected status (TPS) holders from Haiti and Honduras, asylum seekers, and immigrants who are facing a potential shift away from “family-based migration” towards “high-skilled migration.” The stories are heart-wrenching. Children are separated from their parents. Asylum seekers are turned away. Individuals who have not been convicted of any crime are detained, possibly indefinitely.

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But these violations of human decency fail to resonate with a great number of Americans. Some, including Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsRyan: 'The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally' Conservatives moving to impeach Rosenstein soon: report Senators urge DOJ to probe whether Russians posed as Islamic extremist hackers to harass US military families MORE, seem to think that family separation is a reasonable deterrent for individuals who have no business crossing the border in the first place. Supposedly, an impoverished asylum seeker from Central America has nothing to contribute to the United States.

 

This assertion — that low-income, low-skilled immigrants make no positive contributions to the American economy or society — is one that I’ve heard many times in my hometown in Tennessee. Perhaps this ideology is to be expected of a red, southern, non-border state. But it’s also an assertion that I hear constantly in Washington, D.C.

Many educated and powerful people are under the impression that immigrants are good, as long as they are wealthy neuroscientists or something of the like. Impoverished and uneducated immigrants, on the other hand, are denounced as gang members, job stealers and social burdens. But the economic data beg to differ.

From an economic standpoint, we need more low-skilled immigrants. That’s right, more.

The term “low-skilled” is a designation by the Department of Labor meant to indicate educational attainment. Individuals who are classified as “low-skilled” have a high school degree equivalent or less. They typically are construction laborers, landscapers, farmworkers and much, much more.

Legal terminology aside, “low-skilled” seems to imply that these occupations are of little value. That could not be further from the truth. In fact, these roles provide some of the most basic services that are essential to everyday life.

The roads on which we drive, the buildings in which we work, and the food that we put on our tables all depend on so-called “low-skilled” labor — and our low-skilled labor force consists largely of immigrants. Of the 2.7 million foreign-born persons in the workforce in 2017, the overwhelming majority filled low-skilled occupations.

Immigrants comprise approximately 17.1 percent of the American workforce overall, and they are much more likely to work in industries experiencing a labor shortage than a native-born worker. Many of the industries struggling to fill jobs are seeking low-skilled workers, and the American-born population is largely uninterested in these employment opportunities. It is no secret that Americans have social stigmas against manual labor.

Low-skilled immigrants don’t take jobs from Americans; they fill the crucial occupations that Americans won’t. The evidence lies in the data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Take, for example, the construction industry. There are more than 196,000 jobs in construction waiting to be filled, and industry leaders are becoming nervous. Nationwide, immigrants comprise over 25 percent of employees in construction, and the statistic is even more impressive in urban areas. In New York City, 74 percent of construction workers are immigrants. The president has proposed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but his anti-immigrant policies render this plan unattainable because he is limiting the labor force that would put the plan into action.

The same goes for agriculture. According to the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey, 73 percent of farmworkers are immigrants. Since the decline in immigration, many farmers have lost crops because of lack of labor. Instead of responding accordingly and increasing visa caps, the United States has pushed immigrants away. A new system, one that helps hardworking immigrants overcome barriers to legally entering the workforce, would address these labor shortages.

As lawmakers take another stab at immigration reform this month, it is important that they recognize immigration as more than a social issue; it is an economic imperative. The GOP proposals to restrict legal immigration and the current practice of deterring immigrants and turning away asylum seekers is actually threatening to our economic health.

If you are somehow uninspired by the personal stories shared during Immigrant Heritage Month, perhaps you will find the economic data motivating. On behalf of the American economy, we should welcome DACA recipients, TPS holders, asylum seekers and immigrants of all skill levels to the United States labor force.   

Mary Gardner is the manager of government affairs and policy at the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The organization represents over 4.37 million Hispanic-owned businesses contributing more than $700 billion to the American economy annually. [Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.]