More Unskilled Workers, Please

The new immigration bill doesn't do nearly enough to address America's real labor shortage.

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.

All this implies that even if the United States regularizes millions of immigrants now, it is likely to have another unauthorized immigration crisis several years ahead. The last mass regularization, under President Ronald Reagan in 1986, barely altered the stock of unauthorized immigrants in the medium term. Before the regularization there were around 3 million unauthorized immigrants; just five years later there were once again around 3 million. The main reason was that the reform was a political showpiece built around the politics of "amnesty" and "security," rather than the needs of the U.S. economy. It was never designed to fill America's economic needs for low-skilled labor, but instead was a rickety political compromise among farmers, labor and Hispanic groups, and other interests. In the aftermath, employers had an awful choice: either turn to the black market for labor or face the consequences of a low-skilled labor shortage -- stunted businesses, closed farms, infants and grandparents without proper care. The latest efforts at reform might be the best that can be hoped for from Capitol Hill. But they will similarly herald a new wave of unauthorized immigration unless their low-skill work visa caps are made much more flexible, starting from the essential labor needs of U.S. employers. And that's unlikely.

The country's low-skilled labor dilemma is a sign of U.S. workers' high skill and productivity. It's one of many things to celebrate about the United States. High school completion rates in America have been broadly rising for decades, in all ethnic groups. And skilled workers create more skilled jobs; an MBA launching a new product needs skilled marketers and programmers. Skilled workers work with skilled workers, and that kind of teamwork is obvious.

But another kind of teamwork is at the heart of the skilled economy: More skilled workers also create more less-skilled jobs. That kind of teamwork is less obvious, so it's worth thinking through. How can that MBA launch a new product? Only by depending critically on a small army of essential low-skilled workers. She needs someone to clear the table after a client lunch, empty the garbage at her office, and run the lot where she parks. She needs someone to pick the vegetables she eats and resurface the road she drives home on. She might need someone to care for her child, or grandfather, so she can work late. All of that is just the beginning.

This other form of teamwork is less obvious because it's often invisible. Apart from the care workers, this MBA might never meet or only briefly glimpse the rest of these less-skilled workers. Yet every step of her daily life critically depends on them as much as it depends on her skilled co-workers. They make her more productive, and she them.

This is simultaneously the reason that there are so many less-skilled jobs in America's future and the reason that fewer Americans do those jobs. People who acquire higher skills create less-skilled jobs that they themselves aren't suited for. Less-skilled immigrants fill that gap. Machines may be able to take over a few of these jobs; that's why you're seeing more self-checkout registers in retail stores. But no machine we'll have anytime soon can help the elderly bathe safely, clear tables at restaurants, or profitably pick cucumbers. People who do less-skilled essential jobs make skilled work in America possible, and together they make American competitiveness possible. You might never see the people who clean Google's offices, but the company's massive contribution to U.S. competitiveness would not exist without them.

There's nothing new here. This is how America has been filling essential jobs since 1776 -- by giving opportunities to hardworking, less-skilled people from around the world. My great-great-great-grandfather came to the United States from Germany as a livestock tender because the bankers and architects of the 1840s needed him to do that work. The Senate's immigration reform bill continues that tradition with employment visas specific to less-skilled work: the "blue card" for farmworkers and the W visa for nonagricultural workers. It is essential to include those provisions and make them as flexible as possible to meet needs for decades to come. They are a sign of U.S. workers' skill, excellence, and productive power. Without provisions like these, any reform of immigration law will leave only two roads ahead: either throwing away economic growth and competitiveness that the United States could have had, or a continued, escalating crisis of unauthorized immigration.

Scott Olson/Getty Images


It's Time to Work With Egypt's Generals

In a turbulent time, Cairo's military is the best friend the United States has got.

The Obama administration has a near impossible challenge charting Egypt's high seas in the midst of this latest political tempest. It would do well to proceed with quiet humility -- and navigate for the only safe harbor in the relationship between Cairo and Washington: the Egyptian armed forces.

The Egyptian military is now the key actor in Cairo -- the one actor that the United States can still influence. The U.S. military has strong ties, developed over decades of close cooperation, with its Egyptian counterparts. The Egyptian officers are heavily dependent on U.S. military assistance for their all-American equipped forces. We should be communicating to them through private, not public, military channels that they need to put quickly in place a credible transition to civilian, democratic rule because, without that, U.S. law dictates a cut-off of American aid to coup-makers. Some American politicians are already calling for that spigot of money to be shut off after Wednesday's removal of the Morsy government. But actually cutting off the aid now would be highly counterproductive, turning the United States into the adversary of the very actors we now depend upon to return Egypt to a democratic path. 

It's worth remembering that the ongoing revolution in Egypt is not about the United States -- as Obama administration spokesmen aver -- but Washington does have vital interests that need to be protected and promoted. Egypt is the largest, militarily most-powerful, culturally most-influential, and geostrategically most-important country in the Arab world. Its peace treaty with Israel is the cornerstone of America's five-decade long effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and build a pro-Western coalition of moderate partners in a region in turmoil. And its democratic revolution still holds the potential for shifting the Arab world decisively in the direction of liberty, accountable government, and promotion of universal human rights. 

Our ability to influence the course of this revolution, however, is at best limited. America's moral leadership in the eyes of the Egyptian people is heavily tarnished by our long and close association with the Hosni Mubarak regime. President Barack Obama's last minute turn on Mubarak was the right call in the circumstances. But it could do little to convince the Egyptian street that we were now really on their side. And by publicly humiliating Mubarak in demanding that he vacate his office immediately, it did a lot to convince our other allies -- the Sheikhs and Kings of Araby -- that we would betray them just as quickly if they faced similar street protests. 

Deciding to engage with the legitimately elected Muslim Brotherhood government that eventually took Mubarak's place was again the right call. But our failure to stand against Morsy when he began trampling on minority rights convinced the secular opposition that we were now in his corner. We appeared to be merely shifting our support from one authoritarian Pharaoh to the next. The banners in Tahrir Square this week that decried President Obama and the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, were a vivid signal of how badly we had managed to position the United States during this phase of the transition. We spoke out when we should've been working quietly to remove Mubarak; we stayed silent when we should've been calling out Morsy on his anti-democratic behavior.

The White House's statement on July 3, in response to the Egyptian military's removal of Morsy, only seems to have dug the United States into a deeper hole. By publicly expressing Obama's "deep concern" about the removal of Morsy, insisting that he and his supporters not be arrested (when the Muslim Brotherhood leadership was already being rounded up), and publicly threatening to cut military assistance, we managed to signal to the millions of Egyptians who had demanded Morsy's ouster and were busy celebrating the military's intervention, that the United States was siding with their political adversary. For our allies in the Gulf, who have been quick to welcome Morsy's demise, it was another example of our acting against their perceived interests. Even Israel's leaders will be dismayed: their relations with the Egyptian military have grown much stronger since Mubarak's overthrow; cutting U.S. aid is the last thing they will want.

Here again, it's not the policy but the way it's articulated and implemented that remains the problem. To be sure, President Obama is right to emphasize the need for a non-violent, consensual effort to promote a prompt return to civilian rule, constitutional reform, and a new electoral contest. But this is not the time for a lengthy White House proclamation about liberal democratic principles. Nobody in Egypt is listening to the nuances of our statements; but all will be quick to judge whose side Obama is taking. 

Instead, we ought to be utilizing the private military channels to Egypt's generals to persuade them to adopt an inclusive return to democratic governance, protecting the rights of all, including to free speech. We should also utilize those private channels to broker the prompt release of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership based on assurances that they will urge their followers to stay calm and engage in a renewed electoral campaign (where they will still have an organizational advantage over their secular opponents). 

In the meantime, urgent steps need to be taken to arrest the free-fall in the Egyptian economy. Donors' conferences that pledge aid that rarely arrives and International Monetary Fund agreements that require reducing subsidies on basic commodities at a time of political turmoil are unlikely to help in the short term. Vacating the streets and squares, reestablishing calm and normalcy, and channeling the Egyptian public's energy into a renewed effort to write a consensual constitution and hold parliamentary and presidential elections, are the prerequisites for economic stability, the return of capital, and the renewal of growth.  But the only way to do that is by working quietly with the Egyptian military, not against it.