America has many problems that need to be addressed. A shortage of workers is not one of them.
A glance at U.S. employment data provides all the evidence one would need to conclude we have a surplus of labor. Unemployment remains stubbornly high. Labor force participation rates are the lowest in more than 30 years. Real wages for most American workers have been stagnant or declining for decades. The picture is even bleaker for younger workers just entering their working years. Half of all officially unemployed U.S. workers are under 35.
There is little hope that these realities are likely to change any time soon. Despite the dismal employment picture, the United States continues to absorb more than a million new legal immigrants each year. We continue to admit large numbers of guest workers, and some 8 million U.S. jobs are occupied by illegal aliens. Still, business interests clamor for even greater access to foreign workers.
In a nation where 37 percent of working-age adults are outside the labor force, the problem is not a dearth of workers. Rather, it is a sense among many businesses that if Americans are not prepared to accept jobs at the wages and working conditions that are being offered, those businesses should be able to seek workers from elsewhere.
For generations, the agricultural industry has relied on foreign, often illegal, workers who accept low-wage jobs. In recent years, these attitudes have taken root in other sectors of our economy.
Yielding to business demands for greater access to foreign labor would only further undermine the interests of embattled American workers. Such policies would also create powerful disincentives for cheap labor-intensive industries, like agriculture, to invest in mechanization. Many jobs now performed by heavily subsidized immigrant labor in the U.S. are being done in other countries more efficiently and cost effectively by machines.
As Bill Gates predicted in a recent panel discussion, technology “will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of the skill set,” and will do so in the very near future. In essence, however, what agricultural and other business interests are demanding is that the United States double down on an economic model that’s doomed to extinction.
A smarter immigration policy would allow us to select a limited numbers of new immigrants who can best help the country succeed in the economy of the future, in place of our current family chain migration system. We need effective laws to discourage illegal immigration and the political will to enforce them. Instead of flooding our labor markets, we need immigration policies that allow us to integrate the millions of idle workersalready here into productive jobs.
Unfortunately, that is not the sort of immigration reform being pushed by the business lobby or what is under consideration in Washington.
Dan Stein is executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.