Meet the Republicans who are totally fine with the US taking in more low-skill immigrants

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Welcome guest.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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Immigration wasn’t formally on the agenda during the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but the Republican candidate for US president nevertheless used the occasion to lash out again at undocumented workers.

“We have gangs roaming the street. And in many cases, they’re illegally here, illegal immigrants,” Trump said. “And they have guns. And they shoot people. And we have to be very strong. And we have to be very vigilant.”

That kind of talk, along with Trump’s proposal to erect a 2,000-mile-long wall to seal off the US from Mexico, is mortifying to a lot of Democrats, but also to a number of Republicans who either rely on foreign workers or understand that the US does as a whole. While Trump’s wall has support from 60% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters, according to an August poll by the Pew Research Center, the message from pro-immigration Republicans is very different: We need you, and we want more and better ways for you to come and live in the US legally.

“You can’t do mass deportation,” says Chalmers Carr, a peach and vegetable farmer from South Carolina who relies on immigrant labor and identifies himself as a Republican. “We would have major inflation in this country. It would basically stop this country overnight.”

Carr is involved with New American Economy, a coalition of businesspeople and mayors started six years ago by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and media mogul Rupert Murdoch to make the economic case for immigration reform.

They and other Republicans are trying to counter Trump’s nativist and often flat-out dishonest discourse on immigration with a more thoughtful, data-based view. It’s rooted in a fact seldom acknowledged by Trump and other hardliners: The main reason there are some 11 million people living in the US illegally is that US employers have jobs to fill.

Be my guest

This month, a group led by former US secretary of commerce Carlos Gutierrez, a Republican, released a blueprint for a comprehensive guest worker program. The proposal, put together by experts assembled by the Center for Global Development and co-chaired by former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, offers a legal way for Mexican workers to be hired by US employers. And earlier in the year, Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona introduced a bill with a similar pilot plan.

“I hope it gets some traction, especially during this campaign when immigration has become such an emotional issue,” Gutierrez says of the blueprint he unveiled. “People are being too simplistic about it. It’s a very complex matter.”

He expands in the video below.

Braceros, with and without papers

Gutierrez traces the illegal immigration problem to the end of a US government program that allowed millions of low-skilled Mexican workers to be hired in the US between 1942 and 1964. The arrangement had many flaws, including its failure to protect the immigrants from abuse. It did, however, curb illegal crossings.

Once it was gone, job-hungry braceros, or “arm laborers,” kept coming, this time without papers.

Those who made it through without being caught contributed to the biggest immigration wave to wash over the US in the modern era. The Pew Research Center puts the number of Mexicans who relocated to the US between 1965 to 2015 at more than 16 million. Many of them did so illegally.

Basic supply and demand

For decades, US politicians have been discussing what to do about illegal immigration. So far, the unrelenting forces of supply and demand have largely trounced their attempts to stop it. The 2007-2009 recession, and the loss of jobs that came with it, probably did more to reduce the number of Mexicans crossing into the US than any border security measure.

More recently, some Republicans, including Flake, have been instead proposing to legalize those undocumented immigrants.

Flake was part of the “Gang of Eight” US senators who attempted to revamp immigration laws in 2013—and failed. He has said he’s willing to try again after the election.

In the meantime, he’s loudly criticizing Trump every chance he gets, like at this news conference in Phoenix, Arizona, in August:

“We’ve got to get serious and not just throw platitudes about some wall and making Mexico pay for it,” he told MSNBC a couple of days later. This month, at a meeting with the local chamber of commerce in Bullhead, Arizona, he called legal immigration “our life blood.”

Indeed, even with a service-based economy, the US needs low-skill workers. Of the 15 occupations (pdf) expected by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics to generate the most jobs through 2024, eight—including home health aids, janitors, and restaurant workers—typically don’t require any education credentials, and a ninth, customer service representative, generally requires nothing more than a high school diploma. Together, these occupations will provide 22.4 million people with employment in 2024, accounting for 13.9% of the country’s jobs. That’s up from 13.3% in 2014.

In contrast, of those 15 top job-generating occupations, only four require a bachelor’s degree and they are expected to generate 7.8 million jobs. While the US is producing a higher proportion of high-skill workers to fill those positions, its share of low-skill workers is dwindling.

Companies in industries that rely heavily on low-skill labor, areas like construction, hospitality, and cleaning, are already complaining about labor shortages, says Tamar Jacoby, president at ImmigrationWorks USA, a coalition of small-business owners that lobbies for changes in immigration policy.

“They would rather have legal workers than illegal workers,” says Jacoby, a registered Republican and a member of the working group that came up with the blueprint proposal. But it’s hard to recruit Americans for those kinds of jobs, she says, and existing low-skill worker visas are too restrictive (pdf, pg. 20) to fill the gap. So undocumented workers end up on their payrolls.

She, too, says the fix for illegal immigration is a program for in-demand workers to come legally, and has condemned Trump’s stance on the issue, calling it a “wild, dystopian rant” in a recent CNN editorial.

Immigrant economy

The mismatch between jobs and job candidates is expected to get worse as workers age out of the labor force. The US has so far avoided the fate of other industrialized countries facing shrinking populations because of immigration, says Matt Rooney, director of economic growth at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. “In order to have a thriving economy in the future, we need more people,” he says. (Bush was another pro-immigration Republican; he proposed a temporary worker program in 2004, but, as with the many attempts at immigration reform before and since, it failed to gain the necessary support in Congress.)

Research suggests that, despite fears from the left and the right that low skill foreign workers lower wages and snatch jobs from Americans, immigration is good for the economy. Their cheap labor increases the earnings of some US citizens, for example, professional women, who are able to work because they can afford to outsource child care, according to a 2011 paper published in the American Economic Journal. Immigrants also prompt locals to study more and harder, which leads to better-paying jobs, according to another study, published in 2015 in the Journal of Human Resources.

“It’s common to disparage low-skill jobs,” says Michael Clemens, the lead author of the blueprint report and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, whose focus is reducing global inequality. ”They are essential: The building I work in was built, is kept secure, and kept clean by people who don’t have high school degrees—and I can’t do anything without them.”

Perennially temporary?

So far, though, many of these workers have been shortchanged. Because of their tenuous situation, undocumented workers are less inclined to complain or report mistreatment for fear of being deported. The same thing happens with workers who come under the existing worker programs because they are bound to a specified employer (pdf, pg. 37) and can’t get another job to escape a bad work situation, like a native employee could.

Both the Flake and blueprint proposals would allow workers to switch employers without losing the right to work in the US. Immigrants would be able to renew their work visas, but they would remain “guests.”

Daniel Costa, an immigration expert at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that studies issues involving low- and middle-income workers, argues that it makes no sense to fill a permanent labor shortage with temporary personnel. Unless they have equal standing to their American counterparts, immigrants will continue to be subject to exploitation. ”They should have the option to stay if they want,” he says.

That, however, would be an even harder sell for Republicans trying to disavow Trump’s positions on immigration. As it is, even some of the Republicans frustrated with those positions, including Carr, the farmer, are voting for their party’s nominee during the presidential election.

“He does not make the laws at the end of the day,”  he says.