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The Changing Face of America’s Immigrant Workforce

by Richard A Reagan

With baby boomers starting to retire in greater numbers, the American workforce is becoming more reliant than ever on immigrant labor. Nearly 17% of the workforce is now made up of immigrants, with nearly a third of those estimated to be illegal immigrants.

Immigrants Fill Manual Labor Jobs

Not surprisingly, the jobs that are overwhelmingly filled by immigrants are those that are manual labor-intensive. Among those are:

  • Personal appearance workers – barbers, hair stylists, manicurists, cosmetologists, etc.
  • Agricultural workers – harvesting, sorting, and grading fruits and vegetables
  • Sewing machine operators, tailors, and dressmakers
  • Maids and housekeepers
  • Plasterers, stucco masons, drywall and ceiling installers
  • Taxi drivers and chauffeurs

There is evidence, though, that the number of immigrants filling jobs is decreasing. Mexicans, for instance, filled many unskilled jobs in the aftermath of the Mexican peso crisis, many of them illegal immigrants. But as the Mexican economy has improved since then, many Mexicans have begun to move back to Mexico. Some Asians and Central American illegal immigrants have begun to take their places, although the total number of illegal immigrants estimated to be in the workforce has declined since its peak in 2009.

Border Security and Immigration

Greater security at the border with Mexico is credited with being one factor in the decreasing number of illegal immigrants in the workforce. That, combined with uncertainty over the Trump Administration’s policy toward illegal immigrants, could lead to even fewer illegal immigrants within the workforce.

One problem with this is that American employers have become reliant on immigrants for many labor-intensive jobs. Whether they are illegal immigrants, legal immigrants on temporary visas, or full-time permanent residents, many employers over the past two decades have become dependent on immigrants to do the jobs that Americans “don’t want to do.”

If those immigrants return to their homelands, employers either have to find new immigrants to fill those jobs, or raise their wages to entice Americans to take those jobs. Particularly in agriculture, which has relied for decades on immigrants to pick strawberries, tomatoes, and other crops, those increased wages are unsustainable for many companies. With business models built on tapping into immigrant labor, resorting to non-immigrant labor just isn’t feasible.

And it isn’t just agriculture. Homebuilders and contractors are also highly dependent on immigrant labor, as anyone who has seen a construction site in the past twenty years can attest. If homebuilders have to hire more expensive workers, they’ll seek to pass on those costs to their customers. But homebuyers are already price-sensitive, and increases in home prices will lead to fewer buyers. Whether this is the beginning of a longer-term trend towards a smaller role for immigrants within the workforce or just a temporary blip on the radar screen, the short-term effect may mean higher prices for American consumers as producers may not have access to as much low-cost labor as they used to.

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