A Boon Rather Than a Burden

This article appeared on Yale Politic on August 28, 2007.

Immigrants play an important part in the successful story ofAmerica's free-enterprise economy and our dynamic culture. Thegeneral benefits of immigration, including immigration from Mexico,are as relevant today as they have been throughout Americanhistory. Current efforts to reform the U.S. immigration systemshould be based upon that fundamental fact.

For the U.S. economy, foreign-born workers provide neededflexibility, allowing the supply of workers to increase relativelyquickly to meet rising demand. When demand falls, would-beimmigrants can decide not to enter, and those already here candecide to return home. The result is a more efficient economy thatcan achieve a higher rate of sustainable growth withoutencountering bottlenecks or stoking inflation.

Immigration helps to maintain a steady, healthy growth rate inthe U.S. labor force. Our labor force is actually growing moreslowly in recent years than at anytime in the past half century,and without immigration would actually begin to contract within thenext few decades. Because of immigration, the U.S. workforce andeconomy will continue to grow well into the 21st century, whileJapan, Germany, and other advanced economies will be forced toadjust to an unprecedented decline in their workforces.

Immigrant workers willingly fill important niches in the labormarket. They gravitate to occupations where thesupply of workers falls short of demand, typically among thehigher-skilled and lower-skilled occupations. That hourglass shapeof the immigration labor pool complements the native-bornworkforce, where most workers fall in the middle range in terms ofskills and education. As a result, immigrants do not competedirectly with the vast majority of American workers.

The impact of immigration on the small segment of the U.S.workforce that competes directly with immigrants is more thanoffset by the lower prices and wider range of goods and servicesthat all workers enjoy because of immigration. Americans alsobenefit from higher returns on investment, and from theopportunities created for more skilled native-born workers in thoseindustries that depend on immigrant workers to meet the needs oftheir customers. In an August 2006 study for the National Bureau ofEconomic Research, authors Gianmarco I.P. Ottaviano and GiovanniPeri found "a significant positive effect of immigration on averageU.S. wages, and on each group of workers with at least a highschool degree, and only a very small negative effect on wages ofworkers without a high school degree in the long run."

Despite the widespread perception, America is not being floodedwith immigrants. The number of foreign-born people who settle hereeach year, legally and illegally, is about 1.2 million. That is onthe high end of historical experience in absolute numbers, but notrelative to population. In the context of a U.S. population thathas reached 300 million, the current immigration rate is about fourimmigrants per 1,000 U.S. residents per year, less than half of thepeak annual immigration rate of 10.4 per 1,000 in the decade from1901 to 1910. Today about twelve percent of the U.S. population isforeign-born. That is still below the peak of 1910, when 14.7percent of people living in our country were foreign born.

One troubling aspect of American immigration today is the largeshare of it that is illegal. Today nearly one-third of foreign-bornresidents in the United States, an estimated 11 million, residehere without legal documents, and the number grows by an estimated400,000 to 500,000 each year. The fundamental and inescapablereason for this phenomenon is that our immigration laws arecolliding with two powerful economic and demographic realities, andas usual reality is winning.

Even as our economy becomes more technologically advanced, thedemand for less-skilled labor has continued to grow. Large andimportant sectors of the U.S. economy--hotels and motels,restaurants, agriculture, construction, light manufacturing, healthcare, retailing, and other services--depend on low-skilledimmigrant workers to remain competitive.

That demand will likely continue into the foreseeable future.According to the Department of Labor, the largest growth inabsolute numbers of jobs during the next decade will be in severalcategories that require only "short-term on-the-job training" ofone month or less. We all know what those jobs are: retail sales,food preparation, landscaping and grounds keeping, janitors,cashiers, waiters and waitresses, teaching assistants, and homehealth aides. The net employment growth in those categories in thenext decade will total more than four million.

Meanwhile, the supply of American workers willing and happy tofill such jobs continues to shrink. We are getting older and bettereducated. The median age of workers in the U.S. labor force willsoon reach 41.6 years, the highest level ever recorded in U.S.history. At the same time, workers in the U.S. labor force are moreeducated than ever.

In the past four decades, the share of adults 25 and older whohave not completed high school has plunged from more than half in1964 to less than 10 percent today. Immigrants provide a ready andwilling source of labor to fill that growing gap between demand andsupply on the lower rungs of the labor ladder.Yet our currentimmigration system offers no legal channel for peaceful,hardworking non-residents to enter the United States eventemporarily to fill those jobs that an insufficient number ofAmericans want. The result is large-scale illegal immigration.

We've tried enforcing existing law and it's failed. According toa 2005 Cato study by Princeton professor Douglas Massey, the U.S.government has increased spending on the Border Patrol by ten-foldsince 1986. That has enabled an eight-fold increase in "line-watchhours," the amount of time agents actually spend patrolling theborder. The government has built three-tiered walls for miles outinto the desert. For the first time in U.S. history, it has imposedfines on U.S. employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers.We've busted janitors and raided chicken processing plants fromcoast to coast and in between. Yet the number of illegal immigrantsliving in the United States continues to grow.

Our aggressive enforcement has had perverse consequences,according to the Cato study. Cracking down on the traditional urbanentry points in the early 1990s didn't stop illegal immigration. Itonly created a deadly diversion of the flow to more remote desertareas. As a result, immigrants entering the United States illegallyacross the U.S. Mexican border are more likely to enter withoutbeing caught, they are more likely to stay once they are herebecause of the expense and risk of crossing the border, and theyare more likely to die-three times more likely than in the 1980s,in fact. As a result, more than 3,000 have died crossing the borderin the past decade. That is too high a price to pay for seeking abetter job. The lesson of the past two decades should be clear:Enforcement alone is doomed to fail.

The only realistic answer is comprehensive immigration reform.We need to change a broken system so that it works in our nationalinterest. Such reform should create a legal channel for workersfrom Mexico and other countries to enter the United Statestemporarily to fill those jobs vital to our economic strength as anation. It should grant temporary but also renewable visas thatwould allow foreign-born workers to fill those jobs where theirlabor is most needed. Such visas should allow multiple re-entriesfor as long as the visa is valid, complete mobility betweenemployers and sectors of the U.S. economy, and the full protectionof U.S. law.

Comprehensive reform should also legalize the millions ofworkers currently in the United States without legal documentation.Many of these workers have lived and worked in the United Statesfor several years. They have become valuable participants in theirworkplaces and their communities. They should be allowed andencouraged to come forward to be legalized and properlydocumented.

Legalization does not mean amnesty. Newly legalized workers canbe assessed a fine. They should be required to get in line witheverybody else if they want to apply for permanent status. Howeverwe achieve legalization, it would be far preferable to the statusquo of millions of people living in a legal and social twilightzone, outside the rule and protection of the law.

Reform is not about opening the door to millions of additionalforeign workers. It's about legalizing the millions already hereand the hundreds of thousands who are coming in each year already.It's about changing our immigration laws to conform to therealities of a dynamic country that continues to create ampleopportunity for workers, native-born and immigrant alike.