Obama to push immigration, amnesty as economic boost

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama will argue on Tuesday that the nation’s economy will be aided by a proposed rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws.

But he has chosen to give the speech in Nevada, which has the nation’s highest unemployment rate, some four years after he was inaugurated in January 2009.

And some of his progressive supporters say that push to provide a conditional amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants will worsen the economic circumstances for many low-skilled Americans and recent immigrants who cluster in Nevada and other southwestern states.

On Sunday, Sen. Dick Durbin, announced that he had won broad support from four GOP Senators — Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake and Marco Rubio — for a big rewrite that includes a conditional amnesty for roughly 11 million immigrants, including roughly 7 million illegal-immigrant workers.

If passed by the Senate and House, the bill would also provide extra visas for immigrant high-tech workers. Details of the plan are to be released Monday.

Obama’s push for a rewrite of the law — dubbed a “comprehensive immigration reform” by supporters — “is not a partisan or ideological pursuit,” White House spokesman Jay Carney claimed Jan. 25. “It’s the right thing to do for our economy.”

The economic rationale for a major rewrite was pushed by Obama in May 2011 when he gave a speech in El Paso, Texas, titled “Fixing the Immigration System for America’s 21st Century Economy.”

“Reform will also help to make America more competitive in the global economy,” he declared.

“Today, we provide students from around the world with visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities … then our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or a new industry here in the United States,” he said.

But Obama’s economic prescription is wrong, said Steven Camarota, the senior researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies, a reform group that wants to increase employment of U.S. workers and to reduce immigration of foreign workers.

Obama seems to “believe that the key ingredient missing from the US economy is that we don’t have enough workers,” Camarota told The Daily Caller.  But “there are currently 11.4 million high school dropouts … 19.7 million high-school-only … 18 million with some college not working … and 11 million with at least a bachelor’s not working,” he said.

“Total working age folks not working: 60.2 million,” he added.

The left-of-center Economic Policy Institute usually avoids the immigration debate, but recently released a report showing that there are far more job seekers than openings, for both low-skill and high-skill workers.

“These data show that the main problem in today’s labor market is not a lack of the right workers for the jobs that are available; it’s that employers do not have enough work to be done to need to hire more workers,” said the EPI’s Jan. 23 report.

The Institute also released a report in 2011 urging a reform of U.S. policy to match Canada’s successful recruitment of high-skill immigrants to fill high-wage jobs that could not be filled by Canadians.

Obama also used his El Paso speech to argue that amnesty of illegal immigrants would boost wages for middle-class Americans.

“One way to strengthen the middle class in America is to reform the immigration system so that there is no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everybody else,” he said. “I want incomes for middle-class families to rise again … that’s why immigration reform is an economic imperative.”

However, numerous studies show that low-skilled Americans and recent immigrants lose economic ground to newer immigrants.

In 2010, for example, the EPI analyzed multiple studies and concluded that the wages of U.S. low-skilled workers were nudged down slightly by immigration in the seven years prior to 2006.

Worst hit by immigration, the report said, were recent immigrants. “A key finding in the results is that the workers who stand to lose the most from new immigration are those workers most substitutable for new immigrants, namely earlier immigrants,” said the report.

Those employment pressures are illustrated by Nevada, where Obama is slated to deliver his campaign-style speech on Tuesday.

Since 2009, wages for employed Nevadans have risen by roughly 2 percent a year.

In December Nevada’s formal unemployment rate was 10.2 percent of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s tied with Rhode Island, but far above the 5.5 percent rate in Minnesota or the 6.7 percent rate in Ohio.

However, Nevada’s 10.2 rate only includes people who say they’ve looked for jobs in the last four weeks. It excludes people who have temporarily or permanently given up looking for jobs, or who taken part-time jobs.

This exclusion dramatically lowers the state’s reported unemployment rate.

In November 2012, Nevada’s workforce was 1.36 million, while employment remained at 1.21 million, ensuring a formal unemployment rate of 10.2 percent.

But that’s only 20,000 extra jobs above the trough of the recession in October 2010, when the state’s workforce was larger by 200,000 people. The missing 180,000 have since dropped out the workforce, excluding them from the state’s employment rate.

If the 200,000 missing people were included, the state would have an unemployed population of roughly 350,000, or roughly 22 percent of the 1.56 million workforce.

Nationally, roughly 23 million people, or 14 percent of the workforce, are unemployed or underemployed.

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