Commentary | Wages, Incomes, and Wealth

A nation of immigrants

[The Statue of Liberty] The U.S. immigration system is so seriously flawed that currently, there is no accurate count on how many authorized — let alone unauthorized — workers are in the country. “There’s a pretty general agreement that the current system is not working,” said Ray Marshall, who served as Secretary of Labor under Jimmy Carter and authored the new EPI book, Immigration for Shared Prosperity. Marshall urged a group of business and association officials on June 11 to seek common ground in building a system that would ensure a continued supply of the foreign workers who are a critical part of the U.S. labor force, while taking care to not let immigration depress wages or lead to the displacement of U.S. workers.

To show how heavily America depends on foreign workers, Marshall noted that the United States anticipates no net increase in the number of prime-working-age natives aged 25 to 54 for well over a decade. A diverse society, he stressed, is critical to promoting creativity and high productivity. On the flipside, Marshall said, it is clear that immigration has pressured wages in the United States. He said real wages for high school dropouts in the United States have been falling since the late 1970s, while college-educated workers have suffered a similar drop in compensation since the year 2000.

Those trends underscore how immigration raises concerns in all the different industries in the United States. “The Indian anesthesiologist is not all that different from the Mexican farmhand,” Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a major proponent of immigration reform, said during the meeting.

One problem, said Marshall, is a lack of agreement on how to measure labor shortages in the United States in order to better tailor immigration policies to meet needs. A politically independent commission, he said, could collect more data to regularly adjust policies. That sort of information and flexibility has been largely missing from immigration policy such as green card quotas, where the cap has not been adjusted since 1990.

Such outdated policies reflect a kind of “fix it then forget it” attitude on the part of lawmakers, who as recently as the 1980s regarded immigration as a one-time issue rather than an evolving process, said Doris Meissner, who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration and who now heads the U.S. Immigration Policy Program for the Migration Policy Institute and echoed many of Marshall’s concerns.

Meissner noted that there is currently no means to revisit immigration levels in a timely manner. For several years, Meissner has advocated creation of an independent commission and a system that would be “flexible enough to adapt for continual change.”

As for concerns that any move to tighten immigration would deprive the country of the talent it so badly needs, Meissner responded. “I don’t think we ought to have a cap on the best and the brightest. Unfortunately we don’t always get the best and the brightest.”

Meissner’s comments referenced one of the key problems with the H-1B visa program that Rochester Institute of Technology professor and EPI research associate Ron Hira highlighted in his 2007 report for EPI, Outsourcing America’s Technology and Knowledge Jobs. That report revealed that many employers hire high-tech workers from abroad without giving U.S. workers a fair opportunity and use the guest worker program as a means to control labor costs, rather than as a way to attract top talent. The visa has become a way for foreign corporations to train their employees in U.S. business operations and then offshore the work, most often to India.

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