A debate about border security and how best to reform our dysfunctional immigration system has raged in Congress, the media and town hall meetings across the U.S. during the past two years. However, it has lacked a dispassionate, honest appraisal of the demographic trends confronting the U.S.
Fixing our immigration system is a thorny proposition and more difficult if a key piece of the puzzle remains missing. Until U.S. legislators realize the country has a ticking demographic time bomb, this puzzle never will be solved.
Demographic time bomb
Two incompatible trends are emerging as the native-born work force grows older. First, the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the annual growth rate of those 55 years old and older to grow at four times the rate of the overall labor force during the next decade; this group will leave the labor force at escalating rates. In contrast, the annual growth rate of those between the ages of 16 and 54 will be fairly flat. Second, the U.S. economy keeps generating high labor demand for industries characterized by jobs that do not require high levels of education. BLS reports 98 percent of projected employment growth between 2002 and 2012 will be in these industries. BLS also expects employment in all occupations to rise by 21 million jobs between 2002 and 2012. But because of changing demographics and worker retirements, there will be 56 million job openings during the decade, or an average 2.6 job openings for each net additional job.
Construction at a glance
Construction particularly has been hit hard by demographic trends. The amount of construction work performed annually has grown 137 percent during the past 12 years. Construction growth easily outpaced overall gross domestic product growth, which has grown 87 percent during the past 12 years, and outpaced other industry sectors in employment growth during the past 12 years, as well.
In 1993, construction firms employed 4.8 million people. Currently, there are 7.2 million employees in the industry—a 52 percent increase. By comparison, overall employment growth was 20 percent during the same period. This added volume has translated into heavy reliance on foreign labor, particularly from Latin America; this labor force represents one-third of the industry's employee work force.
Enter the Senate
The debate now has moved to the Senate, which NRCA hopes endorses a more emollient approach than the bill approved by the House in December 2005. The House measure focused exclusively on the enforcement side of the equation, neglecting to include a legal channel for employers to tap needed immigrant labor when native-born U.S. citizens could not be found.
On March 2, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) offered a bill containing border security and enforcement measures similar to those in the House bill, as well as a guest worker program and "gold card" program that allows the undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. to remain as long as they are employed.
The guest worker program would extend visas to new immigrants; the visas would be good for three years and could be renewed once. After six years, guest workers would have to leave and wait another year to participate in the program. To take part, applicants would need to prove they have lined up jobs. The gold card program would offer "conditional nonimmigrant visas" to those here illegally for as long as they hold jobs, provided their employers can certify they have been working in the U.S. since January 2004 and they complete a background check by the Department of Homeland Security. Specter's bill isn't ideal, but it attempts to ease the labor shortages faced by many industries, including construction.
For the sake of the economy, the Senate must address the need for a mechanism that permits increases in legal immigration. Beefing up security and targeting employers won't do a bit of good while the draw for illegal immigration remains—jobs going unfilled in the U.S. inevitably will attract the undocumented. And absent a sustained stream of immigrant labor, work force needs will not be met. In turn, economic growth will lag and the standard of living will suffer. Until the U.S. acknowledges its demographic realities and embraces a policy that recognizes these trends, we never will solve the immigration puzzle.
R. Craig Silvertooth is NRCA's director of federal affairs.