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The Myth of Low-Skill Immigrant Workers

Last year, I had the honor of being invited to the Chamber of Commerce for a forum entitled Reforming Immigration for a Better America. Some of the biggest players in the immigration debate were converging in one place to promote and discuss the ill-fated immigration reform bill put forward by the Senate. Powerful politicians and bureaucrats, representatives from billion-dollar companies, top-ranked attorneys and other influential members of the immigration community all offered their opinions on immigration reform.

The forum was being held in the historic Hall of Flags, a beautiful room inside the Chamber of Commerce. Since the writer is a bit of a history nut, I must take a moment to describe these privileged quarters nestled in the back of the first floor. As I walked into the room my eyes didn't fall on the hundreds of professionals filling the room. Instead, they were immediately lifted towards the ceiling, where enormous old-world banners were cradling immense chandeliers, both suspended from an ornate ceiling supported by wooden beams carved with the names of famous explorers. The marble walls completed the effect, giving the room the aura of a 16th century castle banquet hall. Within this medieval European atmosphere the new world would discuss immigration reform.

Several immigration topics carried on throughout the day, but the one that surprised me the most was the presentation on low-skill immigration. I had my own opinions about the impact of low-skill immigrant workers coming to the U.S. because at this time there was constant bickering revolving around high unemployment and a reeling economy. One recognizable catch phrase summed it up: They took our jobs!

In a word: False. Of course, some low-skill U.S. workers have lost their jobs over the past few decades and they may have been replaced by immigrants. But the idea that immigration supplants blue-collar American workers is as inaccurate as thinking that the earth revolves around the moon. The simple fact is that immigrant workers are finding jobs in vacant, under-employed fields. And businesses will hire both legal and illegal immigrants because there is work that needs to be done and Americans are simply not applying for these jobs. Low-skill jobs are still essential in the United States and the steady disappearance of manufacturing jobs does not mean that low-skill jobs are disappearing as well.

The areas discussed were construction, childcare, food preparation, and landscaping. I can only surmise that fieldwork wasn't being discussed because without foreign labor oranges, peanuts, sweet potatoes and peaches would be rotting in fields as domestic workers reel at these jobs. But the four areas listed above depend on foreign labor just as much as the farming industry.

The real numbers reflect the absolute need for foreign labor. Over the next decade, it is estimated that there will be roughly three million low-skill jobs created. Meanwhile, 1.7 million Americans will be entering the work force and of those only about 150,000 will have less than a high school degree. Our current immigration laws allow for 300,000 to 500,000 W visas this decade. The H2B visa is for seasonal work, and will not apply to the three million new jobs. Illegal immigrants will undoubtedly make up the balance under this formula.

The unemployment rate has fallen from 8 to 6% since I attended this forum. But the need for labor has not diminished in certain fields. The healthcare industry is in particular need of workers, as are the food industries. Americans are simply not flocking to these jobs. Some don't want to work, others have life problems or temporarily can't work, and some fail background or drug tests, all adding to the unemployment rate and the difficulty for certain industries to meet their demand for labor.

W visas are hard to get because the numerical limitation doesn't reflect the need. W visas go as quickly as H1B visas. There is little room for doubt in the writer's mind that the number of W visas being issued needs to float according to demand. As long as there is a need for workers, companies will find ways to fill that need with little regard for immigration status. When this happens, it increases the rate of illegal immigration, puts the companies at risk, and allows for immigration enforcement to easily target work sites and harass people who are here in the United States to work and are contributing to our economy.

I wish to deflate the "they took our jobs" argument, if there is any air left in it. In 2012, there were 465,000 unemployed Americans. Seven of these Americans applied for seasonal labor. They took the job at 30% or more than the minimum wage ($9+ an hour). As a percentage, the number looks like this: 0.000016% of Americans took a field job. Immigrants are NOT taking jobs. They toil in the heat, work under dangerous conditions, put in long hours in hospitals and retirements homes, and labor away in meat-packing plants. Immigrants take the hardest and most dangerous domestic jobs, jobs that Americans don't want. And in doing so, immigrant workers consume products, keep industries alive, displace home-based labor (which encourages women to go to school and work), and generate more middle-level manager positions. It is time that the United States show its gratitude by offering a legal way to work through a logical W visa system, instead of demonizing and denigrating the foreign laborer.

Ryan Morgan Knight is an associate attorney with Fayad Law, P.C. and handles all typs of immigration cases at the Richmond office. Contact the firm if you need help with an immigration or deportation matter.

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