In the congressional battle over immigration reform, some of the most heated fighting has centered on employment visas for less-skilled essential workers -- elder-care workers, farmworkers, builders, cleaners, servers, warehousers. In these debates, someone is usually thinking or saying, "If we create visas for less-skilled work, that amounts to saying that U.S. workers are too 'lazy' to do these jobs or 'can't cut it.'"
That's wrong, and it's an undeserved insult to U.S. workers. In fact, the economy's need for essential workers from abroad is a sign of American workers' strength. And if the United States doesn't address this crucial shortage, the reform efforts currently on the table will likely have limited impact on the number of undocumented workers coming into the country.
The bedrock fact is that there aren't enough U.S. workers to do these essential jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the United States will need 3 million additional workers over the next decade to fill the least-skilled jobs -- jobs that do not require a high school degree -- in order to achieve projected economic growth. These include jobs in home health, food preparation, freight, child care, cleaning, landscaping, and construction. Over the same period, the total number of U.S. workers entering the labor force at all skill levels, between the ages of 25 and 54, will be 1.7 million. (At younger ages, 24 years and below, the labor force will actually shrink.)
Think on that a moment. Even if every single young American dropped out of college and high school now, so that at the end of the coming decade they would be performing essential less-skilled jobs, they could only fill about half of these new openings. And of course all those kids won't and shouldn't stop getting educated. Around 10 percent of those new labor-force entrants will have less than a high school education; around 30 percent will have high school only.
Bottom line: At least three out of four of these new, essential jobs will be filled by workers coming to the United States from abroad, or they won't be filled at all. This has nothing to do with laziness. It's about numbers. It's not only that there aren't enough less-skilled Americans to do these jobs. There aren't enough Americans period.
This economic reality is at the center of what drives immigration. But it has been at the fringe of the political theater shaping U.S. immigration reform, perhaps because would-be reformers would rather the face of immigration be a software engineer from Mumbai with a master's degree rather than an uneducated factory worker from Mexico. The Senate's recently passed bill would create relatively small numbers of work visas for low-skilled jobs. (The House has no bill yet.) The Senate bill would create only a few hundred thousand temporary work visas at a time -- the "W" visa -- with a floating cap that could rise to a hypothetical maximum of 600,000 people in the country at any one moment. And it creates a negligible number of low-skill permanent work visas.
Who will staff the millions of new low-skilled jobs the U.S. economy will create in the next decade, jobs American workers will not fill? There are the current undocumented workers in the country who may be regularized under immigration reform -- but they're already in the United States, so the BLS's estimates of new jobs already account for the jobs they fill. Perhaps some of these jobs will be filled by people who come on family-reunification visas, but no one knows how many of them there will be, and it will almost certainly be too few. Family-based immigrants have not been filling many of the low-skilled jobs currently filled by unauthorized workers, and the Senate bill will reduce the number of family-based visas.