Journal’s Good Effort on the Immigration Backlash

The Wall Street Journal has a really good story today on the government discouraging companies from hiring foreign workers.

First of all, it’s news. I’ve seen part of this, but the Journal is smart to piece together what looks like a larger trend. Second of all, the reporter, S. Mitra Kalita, does a nice job bringing balance to what’s always a hot-button topic.

The government is restricting highly skilled hires, is requesting that seasonal employers hire fewer foreigners, and is talking about suspending a farmhand guest worker program. Seems logical, right? With an unemployment rate above 8 percent (European levels!) and rising sharply every month, it seems we should give our folks first dibs.

the U.S. finds its longstanding quandary over immigration growing even more difficult. On one hand, fewer Americans have jobs and competition for available work is intensifying. On the other, the Obama administration says it wants to resist moves toward protectionism — at least in the trade of goods and services…

Immigration advocates say it is hypocritical not to apply the same approach to the flow of people.

“You don’t abandon regulations because you have one bad year,” said Jeanne M. Malitz, an immigration lawyer in San Diego who represents many growers who are trying to plan their harvests but are uncertain of their labor source.

Now, a lot of stories, like in, say, The New York Times would have left it right here with this comment:

Some farms, Ms. Malitz said, are seeing U.S. applicants for the first time in years, but remain apprehensive. “Will they stay?” she asks. “They quit in the middle of the season. They don’t like it.”

But Kalita does a good job of questioning that (which is an age-old Chamber of Commerce line):

Indeed, an economic downturn tests an argument that has been the bedrock of legal, employer-sponsored migration: Americans won’t or can’t do certain jobs. Among the highly skilled, perhaps they didn’t know programming languages such as Java or C++. Among the lower skilled, they didn’t want to work with their hands, get dirty, or sweat.

And finding that it’s already changing in some place:

t the Bitterroot Ranch in Dubois, Wyo., owner Bayard Fox said the dude ranch has sponsored equestrians from the U.K. and France, and cooks and housekeepers from Germany, under a summertime J-1 visa — intended for foreign college students and trainees. But he doesn’t plan to do that this year. Business is off, he said, and for a change there are enough Americans applying for jobs.

The line of reasoning that “Americans won’t do certain jobs”, most memorably put by John McCain’s incredibly out-of-touch assertion that Americans wouldn’t pick lettuce for $50 an hour, is a canard meant to justify paying menial laborers less. The people who argue this are the ones who yammer on about the “hand of God” and the like. Sure, not many Americans are going to want to do stoop labor for $6.55 an hour when they can work in an air-conditioned McDonald’s for that. As you increase the wage for a crappy job, you get more native applicants. Lax immigration policies increase the pool of labor, driving pay down.

But it’s not that simple, of course, as Kalita smartly points out. Businesses have to compete. Here’s a crab-meat processor in Maryland:

Jack Brooks is the rare employer who calls himself “desperate to find people.” Every year, the co-owner of the century-old J.M. Clayton Co. in Cambridge, Md., has relied on a dozen seasonal guest workers, mostly from Mexico, to pick the meat out of Maryland blue crabs all day long, March till November. But H-2B visas, as they are known, were all exhausted this year. So Mr. Brooks is trying to find Americans to do the job…

Critics of the visa programs blame sponsors for driving down wages. Mr. Brooks said he offered the no-show hire an entry-level salary of $6.71 plus some incentives by piece and pound, and the potential to double her salary with experience.

“With our competition in Southeast Asia, we can’t pay more,” he said. “It’s just better to close.” The irony isn’t lost on both sides of the debate: Foreigners are needed so Americans can compete with…foreigners.

A really excellent last line there. It seems to me that trade is set up so American workers lose out both ways: They have to somehow compete with fifty-cent-an-hour workers in Asia, while millions of immigrants—legal and illegal— drive down wages for the jobs that can’t be done overseas. Sure, both policies drive down the cost of knickknacks at Wal-Mart, but that’s cold comfort on $6.55 an hour.

Anyway, this is not a simple issue, obviously, but the Journal handles it well here.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.