Bay firms depend on foreign workers

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Jack Brooks observes the 25 or so women sitting at stainless steel tables, picking lumps of meat out of blue crabs fished from the Chesapeake Bay. There are a handful of Americans and about 18 Mexicans packing up small tubs for sale to restaurants and markets.

“We have to have the Mexican workers just to sustain our business. American workers simply are not available,” the co-owner of J.M. Clayton Co., a Cambridge, Md., business founded by his great-grandfather in 1890, said last month.

Many in the United States disagree, arguing that foreign workers drive down wages and impose social, cultural and other costs on the United States.

But Mr. Brooks earlier this year led a popular effort by the Maryland crab industry to deal with a potential shortage of foreign workers, making sure Mexicans could keep heading to the Eastern Shore, legally, where they are an integral part of the local economy.

Seafood processors won a two-year reprieve when Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, ushered into law a temporary increase in the number of seasonal workers who can come to the United States.

The potential shortage of seasonal workers along the Chesapeake illustrated a broader problem in the United States — a mismatch between the supply and demand for legal foreign labor.

“Compared to the need for workers in the economy, [the seafood industry] was a relatively small number we were talking about. But I think it helps point out that the immigration system is broken,” said John Gay, vice president for government relations at the International Franchise Association and a co-chairman of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a business group that is pressing for more legal, year-round foreign workers for restaurant, health care, construction, building maintenance, landscaping and similar jobs.

Groups like the coalition are tied into a loose alliance of business associations, civil rights groups, religious organizations and unions that are trying to win a broader, permanent change to laws that would allow immigrants easier, legal entry into the U.S. work force and grant amnesty to illegal aliens already here.

“Regardless of race, heritage or national origin, we are one family under God,” Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick said last month at a press conference announcing “Justice for Immigrants,” a church campaign led by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The conference has joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the union Unite Here, National Council of La Raza and other groups seeking broad immigration reform, including amnesty for illegals.

Such proposals have proven controversial in Congress and unpopular among groups that want some restrictions placed on immigration. Some argue that amnesty rewards lawbreakers and say foreign labor suppresses wages and stifles productivity gains while placing new burdens on society.

“There is no work that won’t get done without immigrants,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank. Without immigration, wages and working conditions would improve, giving U.S. workers incentives to take jobs, while businesses would become more efficient, he said.

The U.S. unemployment rate was 5.2 percent in April, indicating 7.7 million Americans were looking for a job, the Labor Department said.

Business groups say that despite unemployment, U.S.-born workers do not want to take jobs now filled by immigrants. Native-born workers often do not want low-skill work or are unable to move to places where low-skill jobs exist, or they aspire to jobs that require higher skill or education levels.

“In our economy, there’s never a perfect connection between the unemployed and available jobs,” said Randel Johnson, vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In occupations with the strongest immigrant-driven employment growth, wages have increased, according to Labor Department data. Precision production, craft and repair occupations — jobs like mechanics and construction workers — saw 86 percent of all new jobs filled by immigrants from 1996-2002, the Labor Department said.

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