Federal Immigration Reform and the Future of the United States Workforce

Federal Immigration Reform and the Future of the United States Workforce

By Jim Partington, Nebraska Restaurant Association

Jim Partington

Jim Partington

Immigration reform is a complex and very visible political issue confronting our political leadership today. It is an issue that has implications for national security, the economy, demographics of our future workforce, social security, health care and our sense of identity as Americans as we enter the 21st Century.

We have an interesting and somewhat confusing dichotomy in the United States with our attitudes toward economic growth and immigration. James Canton, in his book Future Shock, and other demographers raise alarms about the future of our work force after the Baby Boom generation retires. The generations following are insufficient in numbers to replace them in key leadership and productivity positions. This will clearly affect our ability to remain competitive in the global economy.

Advanced technology and other productivity enhancements can compensate for the shortage of people to some extent, but we will be faced with severe labor shortages in two critical areas: elite leaders with advanced education, technical expertise, and an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit; and entry level unskilled labor.

Since other nations have a surplus of people able to meet these needs, the obvious solution to this dilemma is immigration. This does not appear to be the option favored by most American voters, however. The Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. conducted a survey on voter attitudes toward immigration prior to the last election. The findings clearly show that a significant majority of our citizens are opposed to opening the country to more immigrants. When it comes to dealing with the undocumented immigrants presently in the country, voters generally reject the extremes of mass deportation or legalization. Mass deportation is not feasible and legalization is not popular. Unable to pursue either of these options, we are left with the question of how to deal with approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants inside our borders.

There is broad support for more aggressive law enforcement of immigration laws targeting this pool of undocumented immigrants and those who employ them. This would remove them from the labor force and theoretically, inspire them to return to their native countries. As a practical matter, since many of them have lived in this country for years and have established families who are legal citizens and have exemplary reputations, this enforcement effort is more likely to result in a greater burden on our social services than in relocation.

Action against employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants is appropriate, but it must be recognized that there is a major problem in identifying and sorting them out because the federal government has failed to provide an adequate, secure method of identifying documented immigrants.

The failure of the federal government to enforce border security for the past 20 years and provide reliable identification of documented immigrants, along with employers' need for a workforce in excess of that available from the domestic pool, have combined to produce this untenable situation.

When faced with a problem that can only be solved by political actions that the voters are reluctant to support, our political leadership can elect to educate the people about the issues and lead them to accept the necessary solutions, or they can demagogue the issue for their personal political advantage. Both approaches are obvious in the debate taking place in the U.S. Congress on immigration reform.

In order to resolve this dilemma, our leaders need to come up with a suitable, feasible and acceptable plan to deal with the undocumented immigrants residing in the United States today. Mass deportation is not feasible at any cost acceptable to most of the country. Granting them all legal status just to resolve the issue is equally unacceptable. We clearly need some standard against which we can sort those out who contribute to our society and economy, arrange for reliable identification of their status, and then send the rest back to their native countries.

Concurrent with this, we need to establish a process through which willing workers with available employment opportunities are able to enter the United States under controlled conditions for the duration of their employment.

Both of these initiatives are the responsibility of the federal government and not resolvable at the state level.

The restaurant and foodservice industry is the largest private sector employer in the U.S. with 12.8 million employees; the second largest in Nebraska with 67,000 employees and sales of $1.9 billion; and one of the largest private sector employers of immigrant workers. The National Restaurant Association estimates the number of jobs in the industry to grow by 15 percent over the next 10 years, but the U.S. government estimates the labor force will grow only 10 percent. Even more troubling, the government estimates that the 16-to 24-year-old age group, which makes up about half of our industry's workforce, will not grow at all over the next decade.

Right now, our immigration system does not meet the economy's need for new workers.

Only 10,000 green cards are available each year for service industry workers in America's rapidly expanding workforce of 134 million people. What is the result? Up to one in 37 employees in Nebraska is undocumented, according to research by the respected Pew Hispanic Center. The Center estimates that in the nation as a whole, up to one in 20 employees is undocumented. This is a direct consequence to the fact that our broken immigration system fails to recognize the economic realities of America's rapidly expanding labor market.

"While reform is complex and requires hard work and compromise, it will bring benefits lasting for generations.

A rational immigration policy is essential to our industry's continued growth. Immigrants not only make up a large portion of the restaurant industry's workforce, but they also make significant contributions as consumers in our nation's restaurants and as entrepreneurs, incorporating ethnic and cultural influences as they start up restaurants of their own.

Poll after poll shows Americans support fixing every aspect of the immigration problem. They want to strengthen the border and crack down on illegality. But they also favor a way for hardworking undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship and for the economy to legally get the workers it needs.

Comprehensive immigration reform enjoys widespread public support and can be accomplished through bipartisan cooperation, creating an opportunity that must not be squandered. While reform is complex and requires hard work and compromise, it will bring benefits lasting for generations.

To succeed, comprehensive immigration reform must address four key concerns: it must strengthen our borders; it must ensure that our economy gets the workers it needs; there must be a simple, efficient and inexpensive system to verify the legal status of potential hires; and it must provide undocumented employees with a way to earn legal status.
Such a reform would benefit our pocketbooks by ensuring that America's expanding economy gets the workers it needs to sustain and grow our living standards. University of California research shows that immigration has led to higher wages among the native-born over the past quarter century, with high-immigration areas recording the greatest gains.

Genuine immigration reform will also strengthen the rule of law. Reasonable and enforceable rules will end the culture of lawbreaking that disturbs law-abiding Americans. Respect for the law among employers and undocumented employees would be enhanced if the labor standards - that Americans have won over generations - were applied to every employee in America, protecting the undocumented from exploitation.

Assimilation would be one of the biggest winners of comprehensive reform. Instead of living on society's margins, connected to it by only a paycheck, these hardworking employees would have to learn English and be given the opportunity to become full citizens, enabling them to join society's mainstream as previous immigrants have done.
Other American values would benefit. Immigrant families, hundreds of thousands of whom include U.S. citizens, would no longer fear being broken apart. And the era of immigrants dying on America's doorstep in search of new opportunities would end.

Of all of the benefits of comprehensive reform, perhaps least discussed is its potential to bolster our nation's war on terror. Immigration reform would free scarce law and border enforcement resources to focus on those who mean us harm. For most of our history, the United States has benefited from the protection afforded by oceans to our east and west and friendly nations on our northern and southern borders so we were not required to divert resources to protect these borders. If we need to divert significant resources to closing our border with Mexico, it will detract from our strategic flexibility in other, more critical parts of the world.

Democrats and Republicans should reject amnesty and punish lawbreaking by requiring undocumented employees to pay a fine, undergo criminal background checks, learn English and pay any back taxes owed. In return, qualified applicants could continue to work here, but go to the back of the line to apply for a green card.

Employers and the federal government would also be given new responsibilities. To ensure that immigration rules adequately reflect the economy's needs, employers should also be allowed to legally hire international employees when U.S. workers cannot be found. Finally, the federal government should provide a simple, inexpensive and effective way to verify a job applicant's work authorization.

Such a reform would enable both parties to work together to achieve what Americans care about by strengthening our borders, our economy, our rule of law and our values. By opening up the American Dream that brought so many of our ancestors to the United States, to today's hardworking immigrants, they would bring it closer to the reach of all of us.
We support comprehensive reform that strengthens our borders; provides a way for employers to hire from abroad when U.S. workers are not available; creates a program for the undocumented to pay a penalty before earning permanent legal status; and establishes a verification system that is effective, inexpensive and reliable and does not unfairly penalize employers.

Our political leaders have an opportunity to educate the voters on the importance of immigration to the future growth and success of our country. Let's work our way past the irrational demagoguery, accept the demographic facts and support comprehensive immigration reform so that our economy can continue to grow and we maintain our enviable international competitive position.