All of us in this room share the policy goals of reducing illegal immigration, securing our borders against those who would do us harm, and creating jobs for U.S. workers through a growing economy. With those goals firmly in mind, I believe that focusing primarily on worksite enforcement will continue to be an expensive and damaging distraction until we reform our immigration laws to reflect the underlying realities of America’s 21st‐century labor market.
Our policy of relying solely on enforcement of existing law to reduce illegal immigration has failed. This is true for both border and interior enforcement. Since 1992, the U.S. Border Patrol’s annual budget has shot up by 714 percent, from $326 million to $2.7 billion, while the number of Border Patrol agents stationed along the southwest border has grown five‐fold, from 3,555 to 17,415.1 Meanwhile, since the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, U.S. employers have been subject to fines for knowingly hiring undocumented workers. Interior enforcement of those laws has waxed and waned and waxed again over the years. In the late 1990s, the Clinton administration raided hundreds of workplaces and detained thousands of illegal workers. More recently the Bush administration ramped up deportations in 2007 and now the Obama administration has rounded up and deported record numbers of illegal immigrants.2
Yet during two decades of more vigorous enforcement at the border and at the worksite, the number of illegal immigrants in the country has roughly tripled, from 4 million to 11 million. Imagine the complaints we would rightfully hear about a federal education program in which spending and personnel had grown dramatically, and yet the problem it was supposed to solve had gotten far worse. The right response would be to change our approach, not to keep throwing more money and personnel into a broken system hoping for a better result.
Economic and Demographic Realities Drive Immigration
Our enforcement‐only approach is at odds with the underlying economic and demographic realities of our dynamic American economy. Low‐skilled immigration to the United States, both legal and illegal, is driven by basic forces of demand and supply.
On the demand side, our economy continues to create hundreds of thousands of net new jobs each year that require only short‐term, on‐the‐job training. Of course, the Great Recession of 2007-09 put a temporary halt to net job creation, but as our economic recovery and expansion continue, the long‐term demand for low‐skilled workers will continue to rise. According to recent projections by the U.S. Department of Labor, hundreds of thousands of net new jobs will be created during the next decade for home health aides, food preparation and serving workers, retail salespersons, landscaping and groundskeeping workers, and waiters and waitresses.4
At the same time, the number of Americans who have traditionally filled such jobs continues to shrink. American workers, on average, are becoming older and better educated and thus less willing to fill those jobs. The number of adult Americans in the work force without a high school diploma has dropped by 3 million in the past decade, and that trend will likely continue.5 According to projections by the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of workers age 16–24, another group that has traditionally filled less‐skilled jobs, will shrink by 900,000 by 2018.6
Immigrants fill the growing gap between expanding low‐skilled jobs and the shrinking pool of native‐born Americans who would want such jobs. Immigrant workers enable important sectors of the U.S. economy to continue to grow and meet the needs of their customers. By facilitating the growth of such sectors as retail, agriculture, landscaping, restaurants, and hotels, low‐skilled immigrants have enabled those sectors to expand, attract investment, and create middle‐class jobs in management, design and engineering, bookkeeping, marketing and other areas that employ native‐born Americans.
More broadly, our nation is undergoing a demographic downshift with enormous implications. The 2010 Census figures that were just released show the slowest population growth in the past decade since the 1930s. Without immigration, our workforce would soon begin to shrink, reducing our potential economic growth and our weight and influence in the global economy. Without a steady, continuing growth in our workforce, it will be even more difficult to fund Social Security and Medicare payments to the army of Baby Boomers who are already beginning to retire. Immigration has played an important role in allowing our workforce to continue a healthy if slowing rate of growth.
It may produce a good sound bite but it is misleading to assert that every low‐skilled immigrant we can round up and deport will mean a job for an unemployed American. The real world economy doesn’t work that way. Low‐skilled immigrants, whether legal or illegal, do not compete directly with the large majority of American workers. American companies hire immigrant workers to fill millions of low‐skilled jobs because there are simply not enough American workers willing to fill those same jobs. The pay and working conditions for many of these jobs do not match the qualifications and aspirations of the large majority of Americans currently looking for employment in our recovering economy.
Consider the agricultural sector, in which an estimated 800,000 to 1 million undocumented immigrants work each year to harvest American crops. Does anybody seriously believe that if we could deport every one of those workers tomorrow, that a sufficient number of American workers would line up to take their place? It’s safe to say most of those jobs would go unfilled. If wages were hiked significantly, many of those jobs would simply disappear, most likely to be replaced by imported farm goods grown and harvested in other countries.
Without immigrant workers, the most likely scenario is that we would simply produce less agricultural output as a nation. This would mean not only a direct loss of manual, on‐the‐farm jobs but a ripple effect of job losses in upstream and downstream sectors such as management, processing, packaging, distribution, and marketing. According to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are 3.1 related jobs off the farm for every job on the farm. Eliminating the on‐farm jobs would put at risk many more jobs paying middle‐class wages and employing native‐born American workers.
Immigration and Employment
We cannot enforce our way out of unemployment. There is no causal relationship between inflows of immigration and higher overall unemployment in the U.S. economy. In fact, the causation usually runs the other way: immigrants tend to come in greater numbers during periods of low unemployment when jobs are plentiful, and the numbers tend to decline when unemployment rises. That is the main reason why the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has actually fallen by an estimated 1 million since 2007, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.7 Incremental changes in enforcement cannot account for such a sharp drop in the number of undocumented workers in the United States. The most plausible major explanation is the economic downturn in the U.S. labor market that began at the end of 2007 and persisted into 2010.
When it comes to employment, immigrants complement the large majority of American workers rather than compete against them. Immigrants help to create job opportunities for native‐born workers by starting businesses, attracting investment, and allowing important sectors of the economy to expand, creating opportunities higher up the skills ladder.
It is an especially pernicious myth that low‐skilled immigrants harm the employment prospects of African Americans. As with most other Americans, few African Americans compete directly with immigrant workers. In what was probably the most thorough economic study of U.S. immigration ever, the 1997 report of the National Research Council, titled The New Americans, came to the conclusion that: