Guestworker expansions don’t belong in comprehensive immigration reform

In a CNN opinion piece published Jan. 28, Tamar Jacoby, the president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, shows amazing disdain for the one-third of Americans working low-wage jobs. She claims that they shouldn’t want the jobs they have because they can find more productive and better paying work. Jacoby thinks a job as a home health aide is beneath the aspirations of native-born Americans. So much for the dignity of work!

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. criticized Jacoby’s way of thinking about “low productivity” work in a famous speech to striking sanitation workers just before he was assassinated:

If you will judge anything here in this struggle, you’re commanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth.

The fact is that 40 million Americans work in extremely low wage jobs and are either grateful to have them or unable to find anything better. It’s shocking that in 2011, 28 percent of U.S. workers earned poverty-level wages ($11.06 or less per hour). Jacoby argues the country needs more immigrant guestworkers to fill jobs in lower-skilled occupations, but doesn’t address the most important question: Whether we should ignore the potential effect on the wages and opportunities available to workers struggling to make ends meet, or if we should think about labor growth in the context of economic growth and broader policy goals and objectives?

Jacoby needs a reminder that 12.2 million people are desperately looking for work, millions of them for half a year or more, while another 8 million want full-time jobs but can’t find them. In Dec. 2012, the unemployment rate for adults age 25 or older with less than a high school education was 11.7 percent. That means we already have a surplus of well over a million people who would compete directly with the workers Jacoby wants to help immigrate. The future for these workers doesn’t look much better. A recent report from The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2020 advanced economies will have a huge surplus of less-educated workers with “increasingly limited employment opportunities,” projecting an oversupply of 32 to 35 million workers who only possess a high school degree.

Jacoby and her clients want immigration legislation to manipulate the supply of workers to suppress wages for workers doing construction, working in restaurants, hotels, and nursing homes, cleaning buildings, and, she admits, replacing the millions of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally to work in these occupations over the last decade or so. No reasonable person can claim that U.S. competitiveness depends on consistently driving down wages, so she makes a different argument: the only way to end illegal immigration is to make the same flow of low-wage workers legal. Instead of letting another 11 million unauthorized immigrants take these jobs, she says, give them a means to take those jobs legally.

This is a dangerous argument that serves the interests of her corporate clients but leaves America’s underpaid and unemployed workers on the margins. There’s a better way to end illegal immigration, and both President Obama and the six senators who released principles for comprehensive reform have shown the way.

It starts with forcing U.S. employers to comply with the law. As Jacoby admits, employment is the magnet pulling illegal immigrants into the country. If no employer would hire them, immigrants would come legally or not at all. That is why the principles for reform include effective workplace verification and strong penalties to deter employers from cheating. The broken system in place since 1986 has allowed tens of thousands of employers to recruit and hire unauthorized workers with no real fear of getting caught or punished. Only the workers themselves faced harsh consequences, including criminal prosecution and deportation.

Ultimately, the question of how many foreign workers we need is one that cannot be left to employers alone to decide. They cry labor shortage in the midst of a terrible unemployment crisis when all the data suggest there is a huge oversupply of workers. It would be far better to let a permanent body of independent experts study the labor market and make recommendations to Congress and the president based on facts and provable needs. In Immigration for Shared Prosperity and Value-Added Immigration—two books published by EPI—former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall explains the rationale for such a commission, how it would function in practice, and why it would go a long way towards improving wages for workers while getting employers the immigrant workers they need, if and when they experience a true labor shortage.