Commentary: Rubio’s idea of immigration reform would hurt Florida

By Steven A. Camarota March 2013

The Palm Beach Post, March 28, 2013

Sen. Marco Rubio

The immigration plan proposed by the so-called “Gang of Eight” in the U.S. Senate, of which Marco Rubio is a leader, allows illegal immigrants to stay in their jobs, rather than demand that the government enforce the law and encourage them to return to their home countries.

As part of the gang’s efforts, labor and business leaders are negotiating a new program to bring in more immigrants to fill “lesser-skilled” jobs. Yet the employment situation in Florida remains bleak for U.S. citizens with no education beyond high school. These less-educated citizens are the most likely to compete for jobs with illegal immigrants.

Sen. Rubio seems to think that Florida has a shortage of labor. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 2012, the broad measure of unemployment referred to as U-6, which includes those who want to work but have not looked recently, was at 20.6 percent for less-educated Floridians, up from 10.3 percent in 2007. Worse, 40.7 percent of less-educated residents ages 18 to 65 in Florida were not working. This includes the unemployed and those entirely out of the labor force. In 2007, 32.1 percent of less-educated adults in the state did not work.

Some may argue that there is a work ethic problem among some of those not working. Even if that is true in some cases, it must be remembered that just a few years ago a much larger share of the less-educated were working. In addition, if just one-fourth of the nearly 28 million less-educated citizens in America not working took a job, it would almost equal the entire illegal immigrant workforce employed outside of agriculture. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that just 4 percent of illegal immigrants work in agriculture. The vast majority work in construction or service-sector jobs.

If we really think a work ethic problem exists, how would a new guest-worker program or allowing illegal immigrants to stay and compete with less-educated Americans help? Tightening the job market and improving wages at the bottom end labor market is probably the best thing we can do to draw those who have dropped out of the economy back into the world of work.

It is also worth pointing out there has been a well-documented, long-term decline in wages (inflation adjusted) for those at the bottom end of the labor market. This is powerful evidence that there is no labor shortage; otherwise, employers would be bidding up wages trying to keep their workers and attract new ones. Equally important, the decline in wages only services to undermine work incentives. Most manual labor and service jobs that require modest levels of education do not pay what they once did.

There is a huge pool of potential workers, nationally and in Florida especially, to fill jobs that require less education. To suggest otherwise is not only insulting to the millions of Americans struggling to find work, but is totally out of touch with reality.

If employers really are having trouble finding workers, offering higher wages and better working conditions would seem to make a good deal of sense. This could make a real difference in the lives of Americans who generally earn the lowest wages and have the highest unemployment.