Does America Need Immigrants For Low-Skilled Work?

Congress will explore immigration reform in 2014

Courtesy of Althea AngusAngus at work
In order to work as a home-health aide "you have to love people," as Althea Angus puts it. The 55-year old should know. She has spent the past four years as an aide for a 95-year-old woman in Manhattan's upscale Sutton Place neighborhood.

And so Angus has witnessed her patient decline from being able to walk around to her current bedridden status. All along she's bathed her client, carried her around as well as cooked and cleaned for her. Like many home-health aides, Angus works without health benefits, but there is affection in her relationship with her patient. The two were connected through the New York Institute of Healthcare Careers.

"She always asks me if there's anything she can do for me even though she's lying in bed," said Angus, who enjoys singing the National Anthem with her patient. She didn't identify the patient in her interview with AOL Jobs.

40.4 million foreign-born people in America
In addition to being a home-health aide, Angus is also an immigrant. Born in Treasure Beach, Jamaica, she came to live in New York in 2008. She's currently a permanent resident and will be applying to become a citizen this December, she said. She is one of the estimated 40.4 million foreign-born people currently residing in the United States, according to estimates maintained by the progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress. Roughly a quarter of that group are in the country illegally.

In view of such a figure, the U.S. Congress is currently planning debates around the long-stalled issue of immigration reform in the new year. Last year, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed a bill providing a path to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally. The House of Representatives, controlled by the Republicans, is less likely to approve such a law. But as the Associated Press has reported, momentum is growing in Congress to strike a compromise in which immigrants can have a chance to earn legal status without becoming citizens. Yet amid all the political maneuvering over who can earn what status another question lingers -- what does the American economy really need? Does America actually need to as much as it can to embrace workers like Angus for low-skilled jobs?

Activists on the right say unlawful behavior should never be rewarded and American workers don't need even more obstacles and competition to securing employment. But according to research conducted by economists Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett, respectively of the Center for Global Development and the Harvard Kennedy School, there's a deep need for more low-skilled workers in the coming decade, and immigrants like Angus can provide the answer.

More low-skilled workers needed
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the country will offer 3.6 million new jobs in low-wage sectors such as health care, food service, construction and janitorial services. But there will only be 1.7 million new American workers between ages 25-54 entering the workforce, many of whom might be unwilling to do the very work done by people like Angus.

Indeed, such a refusal has been apparent in the early years of the financial crisis. As Quartz put it last year, "some skilled workers whose jobs have been outsourced don't want to take low-skill jobs, and some older unemployed workers have opted for Social Security's disability pensions."

Immigration experts like Allan Wernick of Baruch College in New York say the arithmetic of immigration reform is simple. "If there aren't reforms that make it easier for immigrants to work in America it hurts America," said Wernick, who is also a regular columnist for New York's Daily News commenting on immigration issues. "It makes it harder for people to find good live-in household care," he told AOL Jobs in an interview.

Courtesy of Althea AngusAngus (right) seen discussing immigration with Allan Wernick
Low-wage workers are needed beyond the health care sector. As Madeline Zavodny, a scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview with AOL Jobs, "The Midwest is depopulating and so the meatpacking industry has to cope with an ageing population." As a result, "immigration is important to vitality and renewal," she said. And so immigrant workers willing to work in the meatpacking industry should be embraced, she said.

Not everyone agrees with the approach. "There's only one piece of evidence that there's a need for any workers -- testimonials of businesses," as Steven Camarota, of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, put it to AOL Jobs. "They just want to pay less. But we have 60 million American citizens not working now. That's a record, and about half have no education beyond high school. Employers need to be incentivized to hire low-income Americans."

Land of opportunity?
For Angus, the image of a welcoming country for immigrants is part of the reason she wanted to move to the U.S. in the first place. She started her career in Jamaica working as an office assistant in the country's capital of Kingston. She then moved into the island's tourism industry working in restaurants.

But when Hurricane Ivan "destroyed everything" in 2004, she began considering her options. Her mother had been living in New York for decades. Angus's then husband, a dual American/Jamaican citizen, offered to help her file for residency papers.

"There weren't many opportunities," she said about her life on the island nation. So she visited her mom for the first time in 2006 as she was plotting her next move. "Everyone was walking so fast throughout New York City," she said. "Where are they going? Most people are going to work. So that means there are opportunities and I wanted to get into the mix of things."

Since having arrived in 2008, she first got her certification to work as a home-health aide. She also helped the younger of her two sons emigrate as well. (She preferred not to provide his name.) He's now completing high school at Monroe High School in the Bronx section of New York City. "He wants to be an architect some day," Angus said.

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ugh59

Brookelyn 39 is right I have been in business for 30 years and all these people working under the table have driven the prices down to where you can no longer stay in business I made more money 30 years ago than today

January 20 2014 at 5:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brookelyn39

Well said@W. B. Wilhite. I was construction worker for years. I went to school for my skills.
It was hard enough being a woman in the trades. Contractors will hire an unskilled illegal before me.
It's not just one race of illegals, there are European illegals, as well. Let's be fair,and look at the whole problem and not single out people because of their skin color. I started over 30 years ago at $10.50/hr. I'm lucky if someone will offer me that now. Sad but true.

January 12 2014 at 11:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nasario

Well first and foremost I am so glad that I was given the opportunity to become a Permanent Residency of this beautiful Nation refer to as Land Of The Free whereby in some areas its not really so .But let that be. I my self came here some 9 years ago and not because I couldn't survive in my country. I was earning above the average pay plus benefits . I met a Cuban Nurse whom I fell in love with and who was sent to my country on one of these mission, she had a son whom she hadn't seen for some 11 years and she wanted for him to have a better life. She knew that if she remain after the mission that she wasn't going to be allowed to return back to her country, so it was a very hard decision to make. I gave her my word that I would stay by her side and make sure that her son would be re united with her upon this she remain. We got married hoping that the country would be able to approve her residency and so be able to get him out of Cuba, but Cuba do has foreign powers and so she was not given the opportunity. I left my job gave away everything that we own and came to the United States because she was told that yes once here she would have been able to become a US Residency and work as an RN who she is with over 27 professional years experience. Well she finally got her wishes her son some two years ago arrived here. The problem now is that she is not recognized as an RN although having achieved licence from two major countries and myself having had the experience in Managerial Operations for over 37 years working in various industries eg. Agriculture,Shipping,Road Construction,Oil Exploration,Restaurant Management, Help Care Aide,Ambulance Operator,Politics,Department of Correction. To date we both are still looking for a job so we can share our expertise with others. This only goes to show that yes we are immigrants but yes we came here not only to better our lives but also to bring our God given talents to see how we can contribute to this great nation building." ASK NOT WHAT YOUR COUNTRY CAN DO FOR YOU BUT WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY"

January 10 2014 at 7:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ugh59

Paula Bryan is dead on with the facts they have taken over the entire construction industry here in nj driving the prices so low that those of us in business ( that pay taxes, ins, mortgages, etc ) can longer stay in business. The politicians are giving them more benifits everyday( in state tuition, id papers in Plainfield nj, etc) because all they want are the votes from the ever growing latino population. What are doing and will do will never effect them they are set for life as well as their families

January 10 2014 at 7:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ron

We have plenty of unskilled low wage workers but they would rather collect welfare than work. Go figure.

January 09 2014 at 2:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
paula_bryan

The woman featured in this article is not the crux of the immigration problem. She emigrated here legally, just as my parents (also from Jamaica) did some 50 years ago, and she is going through all the motions and doing all the right things to become a full-fledged U.S. citizen. The real issue is ILLEGAL immigration, primarily among Mexicans and South Americans who are collecting salaries under the table while working the US social services system receiving benefits for an ever-growing population of anchor children and ******* the American taxpayer and jobs dry -- yet these illegal immigrants are on the verge of being granted an easy 'path to citizenship' as a reward for breaking American laws. That is the problem!!! Focus people, focus!!

January 09 2014 at 9:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to paula_bryan's comment
tridentcommercial

Well said.

January 09 2014 at 11:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
W. B. Wilhite

Flooding the job market with cheap labor is an effective means to suppress wages.

January 09 2014 at 8:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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