Immigrants are benefitting from a tight U.S. labor market

But U.S. immigration policy is impacting how many high-demand jobs get filled.

By Sean SaldanaFebruary 8, 2023 10:35 am, ,

Data from the Labor Department last week puts the unemployment rate at 3.4%, a historic 50-year low. 

One population in particular benefiting from the current labor market appears to be immigrants, more specifically immigrants from Latin America. 

Workers from places like Mexico, Venezuela and Central America have seen pay bumps as they’ve gotten settled here in the U.S.

Santiago Pérez is deputy editor for Latin America at the Wall Street Journal who’s been reporting on the subject. He joined the Texas Standard to talk about where immigrants are working and U.S. labor needs. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

The crux of your reporting is that a lot of migrants are reaping the benefits of America’s tight labor market. Tell us a little bit more about what sort of jobs they are taking.

Well, essentially, we’re talking about low skilled jobs, which are really hard to fill these days in the U.S. Talking about construction, landscaping, housekeeping, hospitality. If you go to restaurants in the U.S., you can actually see the problems that some small business owners have with staffing. There’s just not enough people available for work.

How much more are people taking home for these jobs that you’re describing – cooks, construction workers and the like? 

Well, it depends on the sector. For example, construction tends to be very well-paid. Some workers are making about $200 a day. Of course, in restaurants or that type of work isn’t as well compensated. We may be talking about anywhere between $14 to $15 an hour or so. So it depends on the type of work that you’re doing. You also need to take into account that the U.S. has a visa system for guest workers in which employers essentially request permission to hire some workers from, say, Central America, to perform some specific duties that U.S. workers aren’t willing to do or they just can’t find any interested Americans to do that type of work. That process is regulated also when it comes to payments and income. And we’re talking also about $15 an hour or so.

Well, now I know you talk to a lot of immigrants from Latin America. Several of these individuals crossed the southern border to get there. I’m curious, to what extent do you think these pay premiums are a motivating factor for migration to the U.S. from Latin America? 

Well, when it comes to migration, you have what we call “pull-and-push factors.” So essentially, we need to take into account what are the elements that essentially prompt one person to leave home and cross, for example, the Darién Gap jungle in Panama, which is pretty dangerous, or cross Mexico, which can also be quite dangerous. So you have a number of elements. So the Latin American economy was pretty bad during the pandemic, so that was an incentive for a lot of people to leave. You also have dictatorships cracking down on citizens like what we’re seeing in Nicaragua and Cuba. And then you also have pull factors, meaning huge labor demand for low skilled jobs in the U.S. So you have a combination of elements that are resulting in these very significant trends.

I want to get back to the point that you were making about visas. In your reporting, you talk about H-2B visas, which allow employers to hire low wage foreign workers for seasonal jobs, but those visas have caps. And I’m curious where that cap stands now and how that factors into the labor needs we have in the U.S. and what you foresee the impact being on migration to the U.S. as a result? 

Well, at present, we have 130,000 visas allowed or processed, so that’s highly insufficient. And there’s also another problem. So these visas are granted essentially through a lottery system. So it’s random. It’s not based on merit or on the needs of U.S. employers. Just take into account the fact that the U.S. at present has 11 million job openings and demand, meaning their requests that employers make to the Labor Department are well above that level.

So in a way, what the employers told me is that, you know, this visa process is highly insufficient, and overall the immigration policy in the U.S. doesn’t seem to be serving the needs of the U.S. economy. It needs a lot of low skilled workers. I’m talking about dry cleaning shops, restaurants, construction, gardening, landscaping, hospitality, housekeeping. So these are essentially jobs that are in high demand and that U.S. workers are not willing to do. The problem is that the caps don’t really serve the needs of the U.S. economy at present. 

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