We need an immigration policy for the 21st century, not the 12th century
Let’s enforce labor, immigration laws to put working people first
This Labor Day, immigration policy is quite salient in most political races. Some candidates are warning U.S. workers that foreign workers are taking their jobs. Others praise the contributions that immigrant workers make to grow the economy and point to key sectors that need immigrant workers to survive. These debates are not new.
On Labor Day in 1964, in South Bend, Indiana, the Republican nominee for vice president, William Miller, gave a speech before a large gathering of autoworkers. Miller asserted that the immigration bill proposed by President Lyndon B. Johnson would "completely abolish our selective system of immigration and instead open the floodgates." He went on to warn that these new immigrants would take jobs from American workers.
Rather than winning over the crowd of autoworkers, who had endured major layoffs that year, Miller's speech riled those in the audience of eastern and southern European backgrounds. Many had family waiting in long backlogs to come to the United States, backlogs they knew were the result of a law that set immigration admission quotas according to race and national origins.
The Johnson-Humphrey ticket defeated the Goldwater-Miller ticket in a landslide, winning 61.1 percent of the votes cast and carrying 44 states and the District of Columbia. The immigrant quota law was repealed in 1965. Public opinion data at that time revealed that support for the national origin quotas and race-based immigrant admissions hovered around one-third of those surveyed.
In 2018, polling data reveal a comparable portion (33 percent to 37 percent) of those surveyed think foreign workers take jobs from U.S. workers. Current surveys also find that 60 percent to 75 percent of Americans think immigration is good for America.
The academic research on immigrant impact shows a nuanced picture. Harvard economist and noted immigration scholar George Borjas has concluded, "Immigration redistributes wealth from those who compete with immigrants to those who use immigrants - from the employee to the employer. And the additional profits are so large that the economic pie accruing to all natives actually grows." He offers the option of taxing the companies (e.g., agriculture and services) that benefit from low-skilled foreign workers and using the money to shore up low-skilled Americans. Borjas' option might appeal to some but is insufficient to meet the concerns of most workers - native and foreign.
Policies in need of major reform include those centered on the labor market - labor certification and worksite enforcement.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), specifically the Employment and Training Administration, is responsible for ensuring that incoming foreign workers do not displace or adversely affect working conditions of U.S. workers. Within the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is charged with investigating suspected violations of immigration law pertaining to foreign nationals working illegally in the United States. The U.S. employer (not the prospective worker) is responsible for completing the foreign labor certification process to bring in foreign workers. It is illegal for foreign nationals to work in the United States without proper employment authorization, and it is illegal for employers to knowingly hire unauthorized foreign workers.
However, as my research has found, many sectors and types of employers recruiting foreign workers from abroad are not required to demonstrate that they attempted to hire qualified U.S. workers. These exemptions from labor certification no longer should be necessary, now that internet-based search tools and sector-centered recruitment paths have alleviated much of the paperwork burdens and bureaucratic delays that justified the exceptions.
Political leaders who represent the interests of working people should seek to amend the law to require all employers who petition to bring in foreign workers to certify that they could not find qualified U.S. workers. Current law could be revised to improve the expedited process for those hiring for occupations in labor markets with documented shortages.
Much more troubling than the legal exceptions to labor certification are the employers who knowingly hire unauthorized foreign workers. This past summer, ICE gained considerable media attention conducting worksite raids across the South and the Midwest. Hundreds of unauthorized workers were arrested and placed in deportation proceedings. The ICE website details its efforts to arrest those working without authorization but is silent on arrests of employers who violated the law.
That it is rare for employers who hire unauthorized workers to face criminal or civil penalties is disturbing. The law may need to be tweaked, in addition to be more vigorously enforced, so that employers who violate immigration law are prosecuted.
Even though they are not large in numbers, employers who violate immigration law also are likely to violate laws on wages and hours and on health and safety, as Rutgers associate professor Janice Fine has found. Lax enforcement of labor laws, as well as a failure to prosecute employers' violations of immigration law, are much more deleterious to working people than the specter of unauthorized migrants.
We do not have an "immigrant problem"; we have a labor enforcement problem. This Labor Day, let's put the interests of all working people first.
Ruth Ellen Wasem is a clinical professor of policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin. For more than 25 years, she was a domestic policy specialist at the U.S. Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration.