Jobs and Immigration Reform

Jobs and Immigration Reform

Nicolaus Mills: Jobs and Immigration Reform

This month the Obama administration got a political boost when the Labor Department announced that employers added 162,000 nonfarm jobs to the economy in March.

That?s a welcome report at a time when monthly job losses have become the norm. But it is nothing to cheer about with the unemployment rate at 9.7 percent and an economy that needs to add 100,000 jobs per month just to absorb new entrants into the labor market. Indeed, 225,000 jobs were expected in March, and many of the 162,000 jobs that were added were temporary government positions created by the need for census workers.

The news gets even more dour when we think of unemployment and the prospects for immigration reform. The current immigration system is a
mess. It has done little to stop illegal immigration and still less to
protect illegal immigrants from being exploited by employers, who hire
them at substandard wages with no benefits.

But with an estimated 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants living in the
United States while 15 million Americans are looking for work, it is hard to see serious immigration reform taking place any time soon. With black unemployment particularly acute, the idea of making competition for entry-level jobs still more severe by allowing illegal immigrants already here to gain legal status over time, as a reform proposal unveiled in March 2010 by Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina would do, is a
nonstarter. This is reform that asks the most vulnerable population in
America to sacrifice still more. For the left, the immigration-job situation poses a special challenge.

It is easy to oppose the anti-immigration forces when they are led by
xenophobes. Who could defend the anti-immigrant rhetoric of former CNN
anchor Lou Dobbs? But all too often the left has resorted to defending
immigration reform by piously observing, ?We are a nation of immigrants.?

In the midst of our current great recession, that defense, which ignores
the economic differences between nineteenth-century America and the
present, won?t do.

Before we can expect any kind of amnesty program (even one that would impose a fine and small penalties) for undocumented workers living in America to be adopted, the government is going to have to take two steps: 1) Show it can guard our borders in a way that prevents more illegal immigrants from entering the country; 2) Provide unskilled workers, especially in the inner city, with enough jobs and sufficient job training that the arrival of newcomers does not threaten them.

The Bush administration failed at both those tasks. The Obama
administration is doing little better, much to the dismay of the Service
Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest labor organization
supporting immigration reform.

Democrats are, nonetheless, calling for Congress to move at once on immigration reform. Last Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada promised a Las Vegas crowd that Congress would begin work on immigration reform as soon as it returned from its spring recess, and Democratic senator Richard Durbin of Illinois spoke in similar terms at a Chicago rally for immigration reform.

Brave talk! But in the wake of the president?s narrow victory on health care, not the kind of talk to inspire confidence. What Reid and Durbin were ignoring was Senator Lindsey Graham?s much more realistic assessment that right now there is insufficient support among Republicans to pass immigration reform.

Since Senator Reid?s speech there has, however, been a new piece added to the immigration puzzle. A report done for the New York Times by the
nonpartisan Fiscal Policy Group shows that immigrants to the United
States who live in the country?s largest cities are evenly distributed
along the job and income spectrum. Their presence, the report goes on to say, has contributed to economic growth in the cities where they live.

This is news that challenges stereotypes about immigrants as a drain on the nation?s resources and suggests that immigration reform that gives priority to high skilled, high earning immigrants is in America?s economic self-interest . What remains unanswered by the Fiscal Policy Institute report is unfortunately the most volatile question of all, What is to be done with the millions of low-skilled immigrants who have come to America without documentation and are struggling just to scrape by?