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How Do Low-Skilled Workers Fit Into Equation of Immigration Reform?

May 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The NewsHour continues its examination of different aspects of the immigration reform bill with a look at the role of low-skilled workers in the American economy. Ray Suarez gets two views from Columbia University's Mae Ngai and Carol Swain of Vanderbilt University.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: a look at some low-skilled workers in this country, as we continue our series on the immigration bill now making its way through the U.S. Senate. It’s part of our ongoing focus inside immigration reform.

Ray Suarez has tonight’s conversation.

RAY SUAREZ: The U.S. has used unskilled immigrants throughout its history. They worked in factories, on farms, in hotels and restaurants. And over time, those workers could see their opportunities change and their families’ life chances improve.

For two different views on immigration and the low-skilled labor force in history and moving forward, we turn to Mae Ngai, a history and Asian-American studies professor at Columbia University, and Carol Swain, professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University.

And, Professor Ngai, let me start with you.

As we look at the long arc of American immigration law, have there ever been attempts to distinguish between high-skilled and low-skilled labor?

MAE NGAI, Columbia University: Well, that’s a great question, because it’s actually a fairly recent phenomenon.

In the past, we actually had no restrictions on immigration, so anybody who wanted to come just came. And they found work. And at the turn of the last century, 100 years ago, most of the immigrants who came actually were in the lower-skilled strata.

RAY SUAREZ: And, on balance, in your view, as a historian, have they done well and has the country done well for their presence?

MAE NGAI: Well, the first generation of immigrants then, as now, usually are working in the lower-skilled strata of the work force. Over time, they tend to move up, or some of them move up. And their children tend to move up. So this is a general pattern, I think you could say, in American history, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Swain, as we debate how to move forward and whether to rewrite American immigration law, is today different from the way we might have had this conversation during the years of the Ellis Island generations coming to the United States?

CAROL SWAIN, Vanderbilt University: It’s very different, because the — where we are today, we have a huge population of American citizens that are African-Americans, Hispanics and immigrants that are unemployed. They’re not doing well.

And we don’t have the same national growth that we had during the turn of the century. We no longer live in a world where parents can expect their children to do better than they did. And we also are facing the fact that America is a — will soon become majority minority in the not too distant future. And I believe that all changes the calculus.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, who benefits and who loses when we allow large numbers of new people to come in as legal residents who are either lowly educated or low-skilled?

CAROL SWAIN: I think the group that is most harmed are those Americans that have high school educations or less. If you look at the current unemployment levels from the first quarter of this year, young people between the ages of 18 and 35 with a high school diploma or less have unemployment figures as high as 30 percent.

And that’s for young people. And for African-Americans, it’s above 30 percent, for Hispanics that are in that age group. And these are people that are actively looking for jobs.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Professor Ngai, when we look back at other periods in our history of the 1880s, the early years of the 20th century, there were low-skilled and low-paid workers who viewed the arrival of yet more as — with great alarm, weren’t there?

MAE NGAI: Well, this is always the case.

The people who got here 10 minutes ago are nervous about the people who got here two minutes ago. So this is true. That is a pattern. But let me just say that the level of immigration recently is actually, in terms of absolute numbers and as percentage of the total population, it’s not significantly more than it was 100 years ago.

In the decade before World War I, you had a million people come into the United States a year, most of them unskilled workers. Immigration today is about a million a year. But we have …

CAROL SWAIN: But the new …

MAE NGAI: People in the — excuse me. Could I finish?

RAY SUAREZ: Please do.

MAE NGAI: So — but, as a proportion of the population, it’s still actually about the same or a little lower.

But the other point I want to make is that there is unemployment today. There are many native-born workers and people of immigrant background who are struggling economically. That’s absolutely the case. The cause of that is not immigration, though. The cause of that is a restructuring that we have had of the economy — some people call it globalization — a vast increase in the disparity between the very rich and the very poor.

Those are the causes for economic stress, not immigration.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Swain, go ahead.

CAROL SWAIN: I disagree, because the individuals that I mentioned that are in that age group from 18 to 35, these are people that are competing in the same labor market as many of the people that are undocumented.

And certainly there’s been some data to suggest that 75 percent of the estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented persons, they have a high school education or less. They will take jobs and they will be competing for the same jobs as American citizens.

And it’s not just blacks that are hurting. Black men are hurt the most. But Hispanics are hurt. Poor whites are hurt. And I believe that America needs to focus on developing its own human capital. Under the new immigration being pushed by the gang of eight, it wouldn’t only legalize the 11 to 12 million and bring them openly into the labor market, but they could also bring in their relatives that are low-skilled.

And so whatever the numbers are coming now legally, there’s going to be an explosion. So …

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it’s like — is it likely, Professor Ngai, that if family reunification numbers are counted in with those of the legal immigrants, we’re actually looking at an awful lot of people, and if you’re a low-educated, low-skilled worker, it’s likely that your family members coming in are not a lot different economically or socioeconomically from what you, the immigrant, are?

MAE NGAI: Well, that’s true.

But I want to address this point about our own human capital in the United States. And, you know, if you look at the numbers in the aggregate, you might come to a conclusion like Professor Swain’s, but I think you have to look at labor markets in a local way. And you have to look at a lot of factors that go into how the labor market is segmented. And it often is segmented by race or by ethnicity.

For example, you have high unemployment, especially among African-Americans, in parts of the South, where you have very, very little immigration. So you can’t really say immigrants are competing for jobs with black people in those areas.

CAROL SWAIN: That’s not true.

MAE NGAI: You have certain industries — excuse me. I didn’t interrupt you. So I would appreciate if you didn’t interrupt me, OK?

You also have industries where you have very different outcomes in similar industries, for example, in the building cleaning services industry. In Los Angeles, that industry broke the union and started to bring in subcontractors which did use immigrants and many of them undocumented. And that did lead to a loss of jobs among African-Americans.

But, in New York City, where the building services — these are janitors and people who clean office buildings and apartment buildings — where that union remains very strong, you have a diverse work force that includes African-Americans, Hispanics, and immigrants, et cetera.

So I think there are a lot of factors that go into why some groups struggle in the labor market and others struggle less so. But I don’t think — it’s too pat an answer to say that immigration is the problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Swain, your response, and very quickly, please, because we’re close to out of time.

CAROL SWAIN: Yes. Immigration …

RAY SUAREZ: But what about Professor Ngai’s assertion that these are not workers who are directly competing against each other in a lot of cases?

CAROL SWAIN: Well, what she said is that immigration is not a problem in the South.

It’s a national problem. It’s a problem in Georgia. It’s a problem in Tennessee, South Carolina. African-Americans have been displaced. There’s plenty of data to suggest that, but it’s also poor whites and Hispanics. And I think that’s the issue.

And with the new immigration bill, there’s not enough attention being paid to the populations that are most vulnerable in the U.S.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Swain, Professor Ngai, ladies, thank you both.

MAE NGAI: Thank you for having us, Ray.

CAROL SWAIN: Thank you.