New Immigration Bill: Low-Skilled Visa Workers Can Save the Economy

I admit upfront that I wish we lived in a country where an economic argument to justify a policy that uplifts 11 million people — and reunites countless others with their families — was unnecessary. That it would just be common sense. But politics can sometimes be ugly, and the people in decision making positions can forget that they're dealing with peoples' lives. 

We should continue to remind decision makers that undocumented people are indeed people, and in the meantime we can talk economics. During the battle to pass the S. 744, the Senate immigration bill's (accurately named The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Modernization Act) most divisive top lines was whether we should favor so-called "skilled" or "unskilled" immigrant workers. This was a false choice, and reveals the classism and racism that diseased S.744 from the beginning. The idea that skilled workers add value to the economy and country while "unskilled" workers are a necessary evil that should be limited because they take American jobs during a time of high unemployment is a fallacy.

Aside from the fact that this emphasis has moved the U.S. immigration system away from familial-based immigration to an employment-based immigration system (again, peoples' lives?), this ignores the fact that so-called "unskilled" workers usually do dangerous work for very little pay. If you think that sitting behind a computer is more difficult than picking and carrying vegetables in the sun all day, then you probably have never done it. Growing up along the U.S. and Mexico border, it was clear to me that the same people who were concerned with immigrants taking American jobs were also benefiting from undocumented people's cheap labor. They had no problem with hiring an undocumented person to clean their house, to lay tile, or landscape their yard. Wage theft was extremely common, and victims could do little to nothing about it.

Contrary to pervasive idea that waves of undocumented folks are taking American jobs, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has released numbers that prove that there are simply not enough Americans to fill these lower-skilled jobs, so lower-skilled immigrant labor is not only beneficial, but necessary. BLS found that the U.S. will need 3 million additional workers to fill these low-skill occupation, including jobs in home-health, food preparation, freight, child care, cleaning, landscaping, and construction over the next decade. The total number of American workers entering the workforce at any skill level over the same period will be around 1.7 million — which just doesn't add up.

The Senate bill that recently passed only creates a few hundred thousand temporary worker visas at a time, and even fewer "low-skill" permanent work visas. This is problematic for the reasons above — and for a few others. Not only are we failing to meet the demands of our economy, but Congress is failing to understand that an emphasis on high-skilled immigrants disproportionately disfavors women . In 2011, more than 70% of the H-1B visa holders (highly skilled) were men. The gender gap goes beyond highly-skilled visas, and in some cases men receive visas at a higher rate, even when women are a majority of the industry.

As the House takes up this bill, it has a great opportunity to ensure that the focus is on families and what will benefit the American economy overall. Ensuring that aspiring Americans can obtain low-skilled visas and protecting all workers' rights to a safe working environment will lead to a stronger and more transparent economy that allows for more folks to make it into the middle class.