The effect on the congressional immigration debate after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s surprising primary loss should not be about whether to have reform, but whether that reform should be about increasing foreign labor or reducing it.
Cantor represented the unanimous views of the leadership of both parties, which have only differed in how and how much to increase lifetime immigrants, guest workers and legalizations of unlawful foreign visitors.
By stressing the opposite option — reductions in legal immigration — during his campaign against Cantor, victorious economics professor Dave Brat has suddenly given hope to the many members of Congress whose immigration policy vision for wage-earning Americans has been blocked by their parties’ leaders. Echoing themes articulated tirelessly by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Brat argues for dramatic cuts in future visas for immigrant and other foreign labor, The purpose is to allow the labor supply to tighten, raise wages and make it more likely that employers will recruit from the neglected American populations in today’s economy.
This is a prescription that has worked well in the past. Perhaps the most stunning example was 100 years ago, when the outbreak of World War I abruptly stopped a three-decades-old massive importation of immigrant labor into the United States.
Northern manufacturers responded by aggressively recruiting, training and employing the still-living freed slaves and their descendants. Since the 1880s, manufacturers had virtually ignored this source of workers, preferring to send ships to Europe to bring in immigrants to expand their factories. But 1914 began a domestic people movement from plantations to cities that has been celebrated in literature and art as “The Great Migration.” It was the start of a decades-long mass movement of black Americans into the non-agrarian economy of the nation and the building of a large black middle class. But it happened only after easy access to foreign labor was removed.
Brat’s campaign focused on the current three-decades-long surge in immigration. He views the country’s over-supply of working-age adults — constantly engorged by more than a million new immigrants each year — as offering employers little market-based reason to figure out how to hire from groups of Americans with low labor participation rates.
He used the difference in immigration approach between himself and congressional leaders to advance his larger campaign claim that Cantor was more representative of outside corporate interests than the concerns of wage-earning constituents.
As if to underscore Brat’s point, corporate heavyweights including Rupert Murdoch, Sheldon Adelson and Mark Zuckerberg’s immigration organization have immediately lamented Brat’s victory as hurting what they see as necessary efforts to increase foreign labor to avoid what they insist are looming worker shortages.
According to Jay Timmons, CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, industry will have difficulty thriving unless Congress passes a bill that would double legal immigration over the next decade to around 20 million and that would give lifetime work permits to some 12 million foreign nationals in the country illegally.
Brat’s victory puts a spotlight on a very different option for the government. It is one that would prefer that businesses hire their next employees not from immigration flows, but from among the 18 million Americans whom the government’s broad U-6 category of unemployment shows want a full-time job but can’t find one.
Some 3 million of these Americans have college degrees. Another 5.5 million have some college, while 6 million have only a high school diploma and more than 2 million don’t. In short, there are millions of Americans at every educational level who are looking for jobs at every skill level. And that doesn’t count the tens of millions of working-age Americans who aren’t in the labor market at all, having given up long ago.
Among the most neglected in this economy are young Hispanic-American citizens whose broad unemployment rate among those age 18-29 is around 18 percent for those with some college, 27 percent for those with only a high school diploma and 37 percent if they have less than a diploma.
Even more neglected are the young descendants of Americans who suffered in slavery, with the broad unemployment rate around 26 percent for black Americans with some college, 39 percent for those with only a high school diploma and 57 percent for those with less than a diploma.
A century ago, a war forced a change on employers and required them to recruit from American groups they previously hadn’t considered. The thrill of what that did for our nation was famously captured by a Fortune magazine spread of 60 paintings in 1941. “The Migration Series” by Jacob Lawrence depicted northern employers flooding the South with labor agents. “All other sources of labor having been exhausted, the migrants [southern blacks] were the last resource,” reads the caption under one panel.
It should not take a war to bring these benefits to economically suffering Americans. Congress can immediately create the same conditions. Just imagine how this nation would change if employers needed labor urgently enough to send armies of recruiters into the inner cities, barrios and depressed rural economies of today. It is an option that now should be in the middle of all immigration debate in Congress.
Roy Beck is president of the NumbersUSA Education & Research Foundation in Arlington, Va.