Jeremy Beck's picture


  by  Jeremy Beck

We don't like to say this much, but it has long been the practice of many restaurants to hire staff as inexpensively as possible and provide them with the fewest benefits that they can, often by restricting their hours so they don't qualify as full-time employees....I guess that can be a good business plan when the labor pool is deep..."

-- Bret Thorn, senior food & beverage editor for Nation's Restaurant News.

The U.S. does not have a pure labor shortage so much as it has a shortage of workers willing to accept the working conditions that today's economy often demands."

-- David Leonhardt, The New York Times.

Senate Democrats must find a way to provide the immigration solutions voters are demanding. Small-business owners, farmers, manufacturers and restaurant owners clamor for reforms to alleviate acute labor shortages across the nation."

-- Rebecca Shi, executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition

The economic conditions brought about by the pandemic gives us a glimpse of what a landscape even marginally tilted toward workers might look like: more flexibility, better working conditions, higher wages, and last but not least: the dignity that goes hand in hand with meaningful work.

The immigration framework drafted by the House for the budget reconciliation bill would short-circuit that progress. The framework includes work permits for 8 million people who are in the country illegally, creates new exemptions for annual limits on new green cards, and throws in a bonus of more than half a million permanent work permits for foreign workers. The labor impacts are a feature of the expansionist vision, not a bug. Here's Rep. Jerry Nadler, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, advocating for amnesty in March:

Madam Speaker, we do have a crisis in this country. The crisis consists of a shortage of workers....Fortuitously, we have a situation where we have several million people in this country who are Americans, who are born -- who have lived almost their entire lives in America - as mentioned before, found out they weren't born in this country...They are a resource."

That is explicitly an argument for giving employers greater access to a global labor force and, therefore, more alternatives to the difficult work of appealing to American workers. The expansionist framework is designed to firm up the status quo of the last fifty years, where the balance of power is heavily tilted toward employers and the investment class.

Andrew Sullivan pushes back against the labor shortage argument:

Here's an idea: raise the wages you are offering! Any attempt to restrain mass immigration in an economy that has been based on cheap, migrant, often illegal labor for so long will result in temporary labor shortages (although it's now mixed up with Covid-related travel restrictions and supply-chain issues)....There are still large numbers of American citizens out of the workforce, and unemployed. Paying them a decent wage before you import cheap, exploitable, illegal labor used to be a priority of the old left. Not so much, it seems, anymore."

In a podcast with Sullivan, John McWhorter dreams of "a society that shepherds [Black men] into getting steady and remunerative work."

"If we did that," he says, "wake up 25 years from now and the whole way we talk about race would be transformed. And so many people who are Black would be doing ok. That the notion that this is a permanently racist society would sound like something that a few crazy intellectuals like to say. That's what I would like to see."

Sullivan argues that to do that, we need to rebalance the economic rewards of a college education vs. a career in "doing things that people need."

I mean there is nothing more disorienting than feeling that no one needs you. That's what gives people meaning. But the rewards of that have been so etiolated in comparison with the economic rewards of a college education that unless we find some way to rebalance that, which would mean thinking about things that, you know, Trump even talked about: a little bit of maybe trade protectionism, what about restriction of immigration to stop this constant downward push of labor costs because you're constantly competing against people who are prepared to work for nothing, basically."

We have history to draw upon. Moderated immigration was one of the significant factors driving The Great Migration and The Great Leveling 100 years ago, and arguably no group benefited more than Black Americans. Those trends stalled out as policymakers ushered in multiple immigration expansions over the past half century. Pamela Denise Long sees a pattern:

From engineering to medicine to nursing to manual labor, the United States has a history of cultivating and seeking talent from foreign countries—while surveilling, incarcerating, and traumatizing its own Black population...

"...This is not to suggest that we ignore our responsibilities to immigrants or to the desperate and destitute of countries around the world, especially those whom U.S. policy has negatively impacted. But it is to point out the fact that in a labor market that is increasingly inhospitable to the lower classes and has never been made to work for Black Americans, our country sometimes seems to prefer to offer its bounty to others."

Is she wrong? In 1987, a commissioned report for the Department of Labor noted that the projected decline of young, white workers entering the labor force presented America with an "unprecedented opportunity":

As employers reach further down the labor queue, they might be expected to provide better job prospects for historically disadvantaged groups and to invest more heavily in their education and training."

But in a number of cringe-worthy passages, the authors also appeared to encourage Congress to seek out alternatives:

Minority workers are not only less likely to have had satisfactory schooling and on-the-job training, they may have language and attitude problems that prevent them from taking advantage of the jobs that will exist. . . . Before minority unemployment can be significantly reduced, there must be change in the cultural values that make it seem more attractive to sell drugs or get pregnant than to do well in school and work at McDonald's."

Within three years, Congress increased annual immigration to more than one million per year, where it has remained ever since. So much for the "unprecedented opportunity" to address pervasive economic inequities. Ironically, the expansionist movement has succeeded over time in getting these capitulations to corporate lobbies perceived as "social justice," while advocates for lower immigration levels - public figures and private citizens - are routinely smeared as being anti-immigrant or racist.

For her part, Long decries the censorious nature of the debate:

Too often, it seems that folks expect Black people not to push back when policies and laws negatively affect our priorities and position. Black Americans are expected not to advocate specifically for ourselves. And as part of this, we are expected to deny the reality of how immigration laws have affected the sociopolitical outcomes of Black America—while those who claim to advocate on our behalf increasingly push policies that seem a lot like open borders."

The House's immigration framework could come up for a vote this week. The Senate will be offering its own "Plan C" amnesty well.

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Sustainability Initiative for NumbersUSA

Updated: Wed, Nov 17th 2021 @ 10:50am EST

NumbersUSA's blogs are copyrighted and may be republished or reposted only if they are copied in their entirety, including this paragraph, and provide proper credit to NumbersUSA. NumbersUSA bears no responsibility for where our blogs may be republished or reposted. The views expressed in blogs do not necessarily reflect the official position of NumbersUSA.