Photo by Mark Lipczynski

Labor Pains

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: Valley News Issue: November 2017
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While the pro-border wall camp applauds Trump’s plan to cut immigration in half, Valley business leaders fret over the effect that action would have on Arizona’s economy

There are four ways under current immigration law that a person born outside the U.S. can become a U.S. citizen. They can have family living in the country. They can have employment waiting for them here. They can meet the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program’s legal definition of a refugee. The last path: to be among the 50,000 people from countries with low rates of immigration randomly selected annually in the U.S. Department of State’s diversity visa lottery, or DV.

The bill President Donald Trump is supporting, an update of the RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy) Act sponsored by Republican senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, proposes to cut legal immigration in half by limiting family-based visas to immigrants with immediate family living in the states, limiting the number of annual refugee admissions and eliminating the DV. It aims to increase the number of employment-based visas issued while imposing a merit-based system that would prioritize applicants based on metrics like education, U.S. job offers and ability to speak English.

While even non-conservatives can see the economic benefits in a policy that welcomes highly skilled immigrants (“more Sergey Brins,” as Arizona Senator John McCain referred to the Soviet-born Google founder while discussing the bill), a new report from the bipartisan New American Economy (NAE), backed by a coalition of Phoenix business owners, city council and chamber of commerce members, makes the case that even unskilled immigrants in a state play a part in its success – particularly in Arizona.

“Having an immigration system that’s more merit-based, that’s more skills-based, is very worthy of discussion,” says Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, part of the group behind the report. “We want to make sure that the immigrants that are coming into the country have jobs to fill. But it’s important to look at those jobs on all different skill levels... Wherever we have gaps in our labor force, new Americans can contribute and create new jobs for other Americans.”

“We’ve done several reports on agriculture,” says Andrew Lim, NAE’s associate director of research. “We’ve seen how incredibly dependent the industry is on human hands to plant, maintain and harvest crops that aren’t harvestable by machine. These are billion-dollar industries that really would not be able to exist without lower-skilled immigrant workers.” Ditto for other essential but lower-wage jobs: In Arizona, foreign-born workers make up 40 percent of the labor pool in construction, maintenance and painting, 32 percent in janitorial work, 50 percent in landscaping/grounds maintenance and 55 percent in housekeeping.

That American citizens won’t or are not skilled to do these jobs is not simply partisan conjecture. In order for an employer to petition the U.S. Department of Labor for a guest-worker visa, they must attest that there are no U.S. workers willing and able to fill the position and that the employment of the immigrant worker will not adversely affect the wages or conditions of U.S. laborers.

“For these sectors that are just not attracting U.S. citizens as workers, it is very clear that we either bring in people from outside our borders or else the businesses have to shut down, reduce operations or relocate to another country,” says Hamer, presuming a scenario in which guest-worker programs are not expanded to cover labor shortfalls. “In agriculture, it could mean that instead of a farm being located in Arizona, it gets relocated in Mexico. Who wins there?”

The NAE’s research contends that because of the role lower-skilled immigrants play in helping companies keep jobs on U.S. soil, filling low-wage jobs allows the rest of the companies’ operations to function optimally. According to the report, immigrants in Phoenix in 2014 helped create or preserve more than 14,000 manufacturing jobs that would have vanished or moved offshore.

“The reason we’re so passionate about making sure this bill cannot go forward is that 25 percent of the Phoenix-based labor force is made up of immigrants,” says Hamer, whose wife immigrated from Israel. “The fact that many of the hardest working human beings on the planet want to come to the United States and produce is something we should take advantage of, not destroy.”

Beyond the Taco Bowl
Would halving immigration stifle the ethnic eateries in the Valley? In a recent series for the online magazine Bite (readbite.com), writer Lauren Saria profiled foreign-born restaurant owners, including the Ethiopian family that runs Cafe Lalibela in Tempe, the Chinese couple behind Hong Kong Restaurant in Central Phoenix and the Syrian brothers who operate four Crêpe Clubs throughout the Valley. Would any of these restaurateurs have made the cut under Trump’s notional law?

“The most interesting restaurants in the country tend to be those that are doing exciting things with cuisines that we’re not especially familiar with,” says Saria, a first-generation American whose mother hails from the Philippines. “You’re always looking for that next mom-and-pop joint that someone opened up so that they could serve their new community food from their homeland... That’s sort of what food people live for.”