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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