De Leon: The Important Work Low-Skilled Immigrants Do

Migrant farm workers in Virginia

Migrant workers from Mexico picking cucumbers in Virginia. (Photo: Bread for the World/Flickr)

It’s far easier to argue for immigration policies that favor high-skilled immigrants over those that prioritize low-skilled immigrants. After all, who wouldn’t want the best and the brightest? In a rapidly changing world, we are anxious about our country’s economic viability so we nod in agreement when politicians call for more scientists and engineers from overseas—lest we are left in the dust by China and India.

The reality is that we need both high and low-skilled workers. The rotting crops in states that scared off immigrant farmworkers with their draconian immigration laws highlights the fact that most Americans could not survive back-breaking agricultural labor. Others won’t deign to perform what they consider menial work.

The Brookings Institution recently released a report that articulates the need for immigrant workers of varied skill sets.

“The U.S. population is aging rapidly as the baby boom cohort enters old age and retirement. As a result, the labor force will increasingly depend upon immigrants and their children to replace current workers and fill new jobs.”

The place of low-skilled immigrants in our economic system is laid out plain and simple in the report.

As Americans become more educated, immigrants meet the subsequent demand for lower-skilled workers. These newcomers tend to work in certain industries, namely, private households, the accommodation sector, agriculture, food services, and construction. They are also over-represented in the fastest growing occupations, which include specialized construction workers and home health and personal care aides.

As politicians and other policy makers weigh whatever little action they could make to address the country’s dilapidated, sputtering, and patched-up immigration system, they should acknowledge that we need immigrants both in our research labs and in our fields. Legislation that solely addresses our desire for high-skilled foreign workers will not meet the needs of the American economy.

Of course it would be great if they could enact comprehensive immigration reform, but we all know that’s not going to happen.

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter or read his blog.

Feet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

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