Low-Skill Immigration: A Case for Restriction

By Jason Richwine on November 21, 2017

This article (co-authored with Amy Wax) originally appeared in American Affairs, Volume I, Number 4 (Winter 2017): 160–92.

Lawler Foods, a large commercial bakery outside of Houston, prefers to hire Hispanics. That was the allegation in legal briefs filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which contends that Lawler created its 80-percent Hispanic workforce in an area where much of the low-skill labor pool is black by advertising for Spanish speakers, then relying on word-of-mouth among its Spanish-speaking employees. When non-Hispanic applicants still showed up, the company would discourage them with horror stories about the nature of the work, emphasize that Spanish is required, and sometimes declare outright that non-Hispanics would not be considered.

A nearby manufacturing firm, Champion Fiberglass, had a similar idea according to the EEOC. To avoid filling its low-skill workforce with non-Hispanics, the company would simply deny job applications to people who could not speak Spanish. As with Lawler Foods, the Spanish requirement was not a business necessity, but it dramatically skewed the ethnic background of new hires. More than 95 percent of Champion's laborers were Hispanic, despite the company's location near a predominantly non-Hispanic residential area.

The lawsuits in both of these cases are based on what most people in the affected industries have known for years: employers of low-skill labor prefer Hispanic (and mostly immigrant Hispanic) workers, sometimes to the point that they will not even consider hiring U.S.-born non-Hispanics.

How did we get here? This is a story about the decline in the quantity and quality of work performed by less-skilled U.S.-born workers, along with the concurrent rise of immigrant labor as a cheap and reliable alternative. Immigration is only one part of a complicated dynamic that has caused ever-greater proportions of natives to withdraw from the labor force. However, as long as the United States receives a steady flow of low-skill labor from abroad, little incentive exists for politicians, business owners, and opinion leaders to address the problem of native idleness. The Left and the Right, for different reasons, have embraced a system that encourages the replacement of native workers — including subsequent generations of immigrants — rather than improving their prospects. This system threatens to create a politically and economically untenable cycle for lower-wage workers.

Cutting off the flow of low-skill immigration could force a renewed commitment to getting Americans back to work — a commitment that must include, among other things, aggressive job recruiting and training by employers, reviving the social expectation that prime-age men must work, ending the "college for all" mindset that devalues blue-collar occupations, and strengthening work requirements as a condition of aid.

Read the rest at American Affairs.