Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are a crucial source of labor, and it is well past time for immigration reform.

Moreover, it needs to be framed in a way that addresses the reality of the situation rather than popular myths.

In addition to the important human aspect of the issue, there is also a clear economic incentive. Change is coming for the U.S. workforce, with the retiring of baby boomers and slower population growth, and long-term prosperity hinges on the ability to tap into the global workforce.

Part of the current situation relates to visas, where there have been calls to reduce numbers and make them harder to obtain. In some cases, visas allow in workers who fill jobs where qualified employees are hard to come by. For example, the H-1B program allows U.S. companies to temporarily employ foreign workers in occupations requiring highly specialized knowledge and a bachelor’s degree or higher. Fields include sciences, engineering, and information technology. However, the total numbers allowed under the program are relatively small.

There are also specialized visas for students, temporary visitors, and many other categories of people visiting the U.S. for an extended time, but not planning to remain here permanently. Reducing the availability of these visas curtails the potential for cultural exchange and improving relationships over time through greater understanding. While the argument has been made that people utilizing visas (such as J-1) are taking jobs away from Americans, the reality is that most of the individuals holding these types of visas are here to study, not to work.

According to the State Department, there were nearly 14,000 J-1 Visa participants in Texas last year. About 48 percent of those were either high school students, college students, interns, or trainees; another 20 percent are involved in summer work and travel programs; and hundreds more are just visiting. Those who are here to work (a few hundred physicians, au pairs, and camp counselors) are needed, and the numbers are again relatively small.

A larger issue involves persons who would prefer permanent residence or even citizenship. The process can be difficult to navigate, requiring time, financial resources, and often legal assistance. For many persons who are undocumented, there is not a viable path to legal status. Immigration reform which provides a mechanism for undocumented immigrants to achieve legal status could provide substantial economic benefits ranging from a larger pool of potential workers to additional tax receipts.

The importance of the undocumented workforce illustrates the need for reform. In a recent study, we found that the number of undocumented workers in Texas is much larger than the total number of unemployed persons in the workforce. In other words, even if all currently unemployed persons filled jobs now held by undocumented workers (which is clearly impossible for numerous reasons), the state would be left with a glaring gap of hundreds of thousands of jobs if the undocumented workforce were no longer available.

We looked at the costs and benefits of the undocumented workforce (you can download the study at and the results were clear. The net direct economic benefits of undocumented workers in Texas were found to include $144.7 billion in output (gross product) each year as well as 1.2 million jobs. There are multiplier (ripple) effects on top of the direct benefits, and when those are considered, total net economic benefits rise to an estimated $290.3 billion in output (gross product) each year and 3.3 million jobs.

Certain industries are particularly in need of workers and rely on undocumented individuals, including the agriculture, hospitality, and construction sectors. The current situation, with the Gulf Coast recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, illustrates the importance of the immigrant workforce.

Our analysis indicates that there are more than 250,000 undocumented construction workers in Texas, with roughly one-third of them in the Houston area. Many of these workers are highly skilled; they represent about 30 percent of the state’s construction labor force, with no replacements readily available. Given that construction crews travel to needed areas, Houston and the Gulf Coast could easily face a shortage of 100,000-150,000 or more workers for the efforts to rebuild homes, businesses, and infrastructure without this pool. As fears of deportation rise, it becomes increasingly difficult to access this critical resource. At a more macro level, the U.S. economy is essentially at full employment and we have a record level of job openings that employers are trying to fill. American workers are not being displaced.

The Trump Administration’s recent decision to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an immigration program allowing individuals who entered the United States as children to remain here for school or work, has added another layer of anxiety and uncertainty. Nearly 800,000 persons are enrolled in the program, and approximately 124,300 of these “Dreamers” live in Texas (with a high concentration in Houston and the Gulf Coast region).

The Administration allowed six months for Congressional action to provide a replacement for DACA, which was the result of a 2012 Presidential memorandum and was never intended to be a long-term solution. If no action is taken, this group will be subject to deportation when work visas in place on March 5, 2018 expire. It looks like there could be a deal in the works, and it would be a very good thing (although it only addresses part of the issue).

In recent years, the pace of immigration has slowed. While the Great Recession may have played a role, there are also factors such as post-9/11 regulations, efforts to secure borders, and improved conditions in other nations (such as Mexico) in relation to the United States. Add to that the anxiety associated with political rhetoric, and it’s not hard to see why immigration is slowing after a long period of increase.

Without a steady supply of immigrant workers, however, the United States may face significant labor force challenges. Congressional action is needed to fix the system, particularly given the decision to end DACA. In addition to the important social considerations, immigration reform that both protects borders and the integrity of the system and confronts economic reality is essential to long-term economic prosperity.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column is from Reuters/Lucy Nicholson.


  1. Hmmm:

    The U.S. currently has eleven non immigrant guest worker visa programs.

    There is no cap on the number of workers allowed into the U.S. under the H-2A temporary agricultural guest worker visa program.
    “The provision could more than triple the number of H-2B visas for foreign workers seeking jobs at hotels, theme parks, ski resorts, golf courses, landscaping businesses, restaurants and bars. The move is intended to boost the supply of non-agricultural seasonal workers.”

    Alabama had to bite the bullet and hire LEGAL Immigrants for its AG Industry:
    Africans Relocate to Alabama to Fill Jobs After Immigration Law

    “East Coast began calling Atlanta refugee agencies several months ago looking for legal immigrants to come to Alabama for a year, said Mbanfu, refugee employment director for Lutheran Services in Atlanta. He said the company would have taken as many refugees as he could refer. The agency connected East Coast with refugees who had been in the country three to five years, he said.”
    Immigration raids yield jobs for legal workers

    ‘When federal agents descended on six meatpacking plants owned by Swift & Co. in December 2006, they rounded up nearly 1,300 suspected illegal immigrants that made up about 10% of the labor force at the plants.

    But the raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents did not cripple the company or the plants. In fact, they were back up and running at full staff within months by replacing those removed with a significant number of native-born Americans, according to a report by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).

    “Whenever there’s an immigration raid, you find white, black and legal immigrant labor lining up to do those jobs that Americans will supposedly not do,” said Swain, who teaches law and political science.”
    Amid foreign worker shortage, Bar Harbor businesses turn to local labor

  2. An Atlantic Monthly article that shows that most economists’ thinking that an increased influx of immigrants provides more jobs for Americans is FALSE and does harm jobs for US workers and the economy:
    The Conscience Of A Liberal–Paul Krugman

    “First, the benefits of immigration to the population already here are small.”
    ” But as Mr. Hanson explains in his paper, reasonable calculations suggest that we’re talking about very small numbers, perhaps as little as 0.1 percent of GDP.

    “My second negative point is that immigration reduces the wages of domestic workers who compete with immigrants. That’s just supply and demand…

    “Finally, the fiscal burden of low-wage immigrants is also pretty clear. ”

    Also, it is patently untrue that “immigrants” are the solution to low rate of start-ups:

  3. There is no STEM crisis. There is in fact a surplus of US workers for STEM:

    Watch Dan Rather’s Doc: No Thanks For Everything
    The STEM Crisis is a Myth: An Ongoing Discussion
    Throughout the month of September, we’ll provide continuing coverage and debate
    The Effects of High-Skilled Immigration Policy on Firms: Evidence from H-1B Visa Lotteries
    H-1B Visas Do Not Create Jobs or Improve Conditions for U.S. Workers

    The immigration attorneys from Cohen & Grigsby explain how they assist employers in running classified ads with the goal of NOT finding any qualified applicants, and the steps they go through to disqualify even the most qualified Americans in order to secure green cards for H-1b workers.

    On May 2, 2008 a civil court judge sided with the Programmers Guild in their complaint against a Pittsburgh computer consulting company and ordered it to pay $45,000 in penalties for discriminating against legal US residents by advertising only for developers on H-1B visas. The case was brought against iGate Mastech for placing an advertisement for thirty computer programmers in 2006 “that expressly favored H-1B visa holders to the exclusion of US citizens, lawful permanent citizens and other legal US workers” according to the US Department of Justice.[8]
    Obama Prepares Give-Away of White-Collar Jobs And Citizenship To Foreign Graduates

    Obama just expanded definitions of “specialized knowledge” and no rule to hire US workers first leads to even more abuse of the L1-B Visas

    Here’s where Job Brokers abuse the H1B Visas, provide fake job histories and resumes, provide bogus training:

  4. The Government Accountability Office put out a report on the H-1B visa that discusses at some length the fact that the vast majority of H-1B workers are hired into entry-level positions. In fact, most are at “Level I”, which is officially defined by the Dept. of Labor as those who have a “basic understanding of duties and perform routine tasks requiring limited judgment”. Moreover, the GAO found that a mere 6% of H-1B workers are at “Level IV”, which is officially defined by the US Dept. of Labor as those who are “fully competent” [1]. This belies the industry lobbyists’ claims that H-1B workers are hired because they’re experts that can’t be found among the U.S. workforce.

    So this means one of two things: either companies are looking for entry-level workers (in which case, their rhetoric about needing “the best and brightest” is meaningless), or they’re looking for more experienced workers but only paying them at the Level I, entry-level pay scale. In my opinion, companies are using the H-1B visa to engage in legalized age discrimination, as the vast majority of H-1B workers are under the age of 35 [2], especially those at the Level I and Level II

    Any way you slice it, it amounts to H-1B visa abuse, all facilitated and with the blessings of the US government.

    The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has never shown a sharp upward trend of Computer Science graduate starting salaries, which would indicate a labor shortage (remember – the vast majority of H-1B visas are granted for computer-related positions). In fact, according to their survey for Fall 2015, starting salaries for CS grads went down by 4% from the prior year. This is particularly interesting in that salaries overall rose 5.2% [3][4].

    GAO-11-26: H-1B VISA PROGRAM – Reforms Are Needed to Minimize the Risks and Costs of Current Program
    Characteristics of H-1B Specialty Occupation Workers Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Report to Congress October 1, 2013 – September 30, 2014
    NACE Fall 2015 Salary Survey
    NACE Salary Survey – September 2014 Executive Summary