OPINION: Why Is the U.S. Turning Away Immigrants While Employers Need Workers?

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“My mantra has persistently been presenting aliens with multiple unsolvable dilemmas to impact their calculus for choosing to make the arduous journey to begin with.”

— Stephen Miller, White House adviser, in a memo to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, reported by NBC homeland security reporter Julia Ainsley on July 29.

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Miller was boosting his plan to put Border Patrol officers, not Customs asylum specialists, in charge of deciding which of the job seekers arriving at our border stations might be a legitimate refugee and eligible to stay in the United States, and who should be sent home without a hearing. He hopes the border police, being police, will turn more people down.

Miller is probably betting that as the news of that and other “multiple unsolvable dilemmas” spreads through the low-wage farm fields and cities of Central America, people — so desperate for jobs that they have been leaving their homes and trekking to the U.S., where a record number of jobs are available at the moment — will get the message and give up.

It’s one of several ways the Trump administration is trying to make clear that it wants fewer immigrants. The administration is run by people who believe in sending blunt signals: economic boycotts, expensive new digital and physical surveillance, detention camps for poor people whom they don’t want.

But the message is clear: “Our country is full,” the president said last spring. On his watch, the number of U.S. immigrant visas issued to foreigners fell to 551,000 last year, from 625,000 in 2016 (though it remained above the levels of the first Obama administration, when there were fewer jobs, in the recession).

This applies also to skilled professionals: The number of U.S. H-1B visas issued to “temporary workers of distinguished merit and ability” — such as the Deloitte tech workers from India hired to run Pennsylvania state software systems, or the foreign engineers Comcast hires, or some of the doctors at Penn — has stayed flat at about 180,000 a year since Trump took office.

America was built and is renewed by immigrants. But immigration approval moves in cycles. Benjamin Franklin once complained that “stupid” Germans were taking over colonial Pennsylvania and crowding out the English, and that we should stop letting them in. More than 100 years later, U.S. Census chief (and MIT president) Francis A. Walker called Italian, Polish, and Russian arrivals “degraded” and “beaten men of beaten races” who should be stopped from entering. He wanted more Germans.

The gates used to open most when employers needed workers. But under President Donald Trump, we are now discouraging job seekers, at a time when the Bureau of Labor Statistics says American employers report a record 7.3 million unfilled job openings.

The average Pennsylvanians are now in their 40s — older than ever — which raises an obvious question: Who’s going to staff our nursing homes? Mostly young people from East and West Africa, and the Caribbean, if the places I visit are any guide. But will there be enough? Birth rates are falling there, too.

Does it make sense to block desperate job seekers, at a time when American employers are desperate for workers?

Adam Ozimek, Lancaster-based chief economist for online-work platform Upwork, warned me to be careful assuming job vacancies could be met from the artificially restricted supply of willing immigrants: “Labor markets are not like puzzles, where there is a specific hole that each specific person must fill.”

But immigration does bring America broader benefits, he added: “When immigrants come here, they bring not only new labor supply, but also more demand for goods and services, in particular, housing. The increase in consumption and investment spurs demand for other workers,” too.

“In terms of the long-run health of the U.S. economy, an aging population is definitely something we need to worry about,” he added. “An older and slower-growing population is one that is less dynamic, with lower productivity growth and new business formation, and also with more fiscal problems.” Immigration — especially skilled and able workers brought in from abroad — helps growth.

Will artificial intelligence wipe out demand for workers? “It’s not showing up in the data,” which shows that U.S. productivity has actually been flat as the digital age accelerated, Ozimek says. And our history shows that powerful machines in time “augment humans,” making them more productive, instead of just replacing them. Bottom line: “Immigration doesn’t crowd out U.S. workers,” and it makes the country stronger in proportion to the skills and resources immigrants add to our country.

It wouldn’t be true to say the Trump administration opposes all foreign labor.

The number of H-2A visas the U.S. has granted — not for skilled engineers, but for temporary farm laborers — has more than doubled, to just under 200,000 last year, from 89,000 in 2014, with Trump accelerating the trend from late in the Obama administration.

The government also allowed in an extra 30,000 nonfarmworker temporary labor visas this year — the kind of foreigners Philadelphia-area country clubs and landscapers hire from abroad, and who Trump recruits to work at low-wage jobs in his own clubs.

There are plans to bring in more. Earlier this month, the Labor Department released new guidelines for H-2A employers. In typical government-lobbyist-lawyerly fashion, the guidelines run to nearly 500 pages.

The prospect of more contract foreign farmworkers was hailed by farmers’ groups, who need more hands for harvest and slaughter. Mushroom growers in Kennett Square have told me they would consider using the program if it were streamlined. Big U.S. investors, including the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System, have invested in industrial farms growing everything from California pistachios to Florida oranges. Their profits depend on access to cheap foreign labor.

The farm labor program renewal was met with more skepticism by U.S. worker groups. They know the H-2A program, which forces participating bosses to pay slightly higher than market wages as a disincentive for hiring foreigners over Americans — but without charging Social Security taxes — creates a sub-class of foreign employees who lack the rights of U.S. workers.

H-2A workers lack the freedom to seek better working conditions, for example, by switching jobs. If you don’t like the plantation that paid for you, your only option is to go home.

Does the U.S. want to be like the Arab Gulf countries, with a growing underclass of low-wage, noncitizen, seasonal foreign labor?

Many workers who came to the U.S. — like my Nonno’s brother and sister in the 1920s — made their money and went home. But at the least, it’s in the American tradition to give workers who believe in American opportunity enough to come and labor here as a “path to citizenship.” That way, those willing to work and pay for the right to build up this country and better their families’ prospects can do it.