To the Editor:
Tamar Jacoby's article on immigration reform ("Immigration Nation," November/December 2006) rightly argues that immigration is good for the United States. A mountain of evidence has affirmed that immigration benefits the United States' economy and the living standards of most of its people. But Jacoby is wrong when she writes that the United States suffers from a "shortfall of unskilled labor" amounting to "hundreds of thousands of workers a year." She writes, for example, that even if the labor supply from Mexico dried up, "the United States would still lack unskilled laborers and would have to find them elsewhere" and urges that the current visa limit for year-round unskilled workers be expanded to "something closer to the 400,000-500,000 needed to keep the economy growing."
But the United States does not lack unskilled laborers. U.S. census data report that 72 percent of black high school dropouts were without jobs in 2004, up from about 66 percent in 2000. The link between immigration and high unemployment among young black men is now well established. For almost all other groups, the impact of immigration on jobs and the overall economy is either beneficial or a wash. But as research at Columbia, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of California has shown, recent immigrants with low skills, little education, and little or no English-language capacity worsen the job prospects of young black men who also have little schooling and few skills. Until recently, the question of how bad that impact is was treated with kid gloves. The Harvard economist George Borjas says that "low-skill ... illegal immigration has the biggest negative impact on the wages of low-skill workers."
It is not immigration, legal or illegal, that is the single cause of all this unemployment among young black men. Their refusal to take certain kinds of jobs and preconceptions among potential employers about bad work habits and work attitudes are also involved. And the issue is not race alone, as excellent work by Mary Waters at Harvard has shown. New and young black male (and, a generation ago, black female) immigrants from the West Indies have fared better in the United States' low-skill job market. That has also been the recent experience of young black men from West Africa, notably Cameroon.
None of this argues against the genuine, and annually recurring, labor needs of the United States' western and southwestern farms and ranches. That work clearly depends on transient labor, and residents of the United States' urban areas are not going to fill that need. But all those other jobs Jacoby identified, especially those in construction that require targeted skills and training, could be filled by young black men who today are jobless. That would require an extreme makeover, affecting not only training and credentials but also work habits and attitudes. The Jobs Corps is one vehicle for bringing about change, as is a major effort to reach out to kids before they start believing that the doors to good jobs will mostly be shut.
The issue is one of priorities: To whom do we have the greater responsibility, to those hoping for citizenship or to those born in the United States?
Bernard K. Gordon
Professor of Politics Emeritus, University of New Hampshire