Published February 21, 2012
Americans learned this month that the country’s unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in three years, but is still too high at 8.3 percent. At first glance this appears to be good news for U.S. workers. But a closer look reveals that joblessness continues to rise for those who compete most with illegal immigrants for scarce jobs: low-skilled American workers and teenagers.
Low-skilled American workers have lost more jobs than other workers during the past few years. In fact, of the 23 million Americans who are unemployed or who have given up looking for work, 19 million are Americans without a college degree who are most hurt by unskilled illegal immigrants.
Several factors have contributed to the joblessness crisis among low-skilled workers, but one cause that’s often overlooked is illegal immigration. While so many low-skilled workers are unemployed, 7 million illegal immigrants work in the U.S., the vast majority of them in low-skilled positions.
Low-skilled illegal immigrants steal jobs from American workers and depress wages. Even Nicholas Kristof, a liberal columnist for The New York Times, recently noted that unskilled laborers find themselves competing with immigrants for scarce jobs.
Some say illegal immigrants work in jobs that Americans won’t do. But in every industry, jobs are held by U.S. citizens. Statements that Americans are not willing to do these jobs demean the hardworking Americans who actually do this work on a daily basis. Any honest job is a worthy job.
The persistent unemployment rate for younger Americans is also disconcerting. More than 23 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds in the labor force can’t find work. This unemployment rate is one of the highest since the government began keeping track of it in the late 1940s.
The Heritage Foundation has noted that teenage joblessness does more than just deny them the opportunity to make money today. It robs these young Americans of opportunities to develop their workplace skills that make them more valuable to employers in the future.
Because of this, there is a consensus among nonpartisan economists that the lifetime employment and earnings of these potential workers is likely to be significantly depressed. The Congressional Joint Economic Committee has also observed that prolonged unemployment may lead to crime and delinquency down the road.
Our next generation of American workers is ready to contribute in the workplace. We need to ensure that they have opportunities now to develop the necessary skills for future success. But like low-skilled American workers, young Americans also compete with illegal immigrants for jobs. Often low-skilled illegal immigrants work in entry-level jobs, many of which offer opportunities for American teenagers to get their foot in the door for employment.
If we opened up the jobs held by illegal workers, low-skilled Americans would have more opportunities to go back to work and teenagers would be able to develop skills.
One way to open up these jobs is to require all U.S. employers to use E-Verify. This web-based program quickly identifies individuals working illegally here and protects jobs for legal workers by checking the Social Security numbers of new hires. It’s free, quick, and easy to use. Persons eligible to work in the U.S. are immediately confirmed 99.5 percent of the time.
With this sort of track record, it’s no wonder that both businesses and the American people support E-Verify. Nearly 320,000 employers voluntarily use this program and another 3,000 new businesses sign up each week.
According to a recent poll, 82 percent of Americans think all employers should be required to use E-Verify. And the breakdown of the poll shows that individuals from all races and political affiliations support the use of E-Verify. In fact, 78 percent of black voters, 72 percent of other minorities, primarily Hispanics and 73 percent of Democrats agreed.
The House Judiciary Committee last year approved a bipartisan bill that would provide new employment opportunities to low-skilled workers and American teenagers, the Legal Workforce Act. Congress should pass this bill and the president should sign it into law.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.