Spike in immigration arrests is arresting the economy

Juan Vega, middle, is escorted by agents into the Immigration and Customs Enforcement downtown staging facility in Los Angeles on April 18, 2017.
Juan Vega, middle, is escorted by agents into the Immigration and Customs Enforcement downtown staging facility in Los Angeles on April 18, 2017. TNS

The Trump administration is arresting more people who are in the United States illegally, and that crackdown appears to be stemming the flow of immigrants entering illegally across the southern border. With the rising arrests President Trump is fulfilling a campaign promise, but he may also be undercutting his ability to fulfill his other pledge to increase the annual growth of the economy from 2 percent to 3 percent or more.

The arrests of immigrants here illegally have risen by nearly 40 percent in the first 100 days of President Donald Trump’s term as compared to the same period in 2016, according to the office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The uptick comes in the wake of an executive order signed by Trump increasing border security. While the Trump administration says it’s focusing on removing criminals, only 2,700 of the 41,300 arrested had been convicted of violent crimes.

The crackdown is happening as the nation’s businesses are having difficulty finding employees. The national unemployment rate is at 4.4 percent, awfully close to full employment. Meanwhile, 10,000 baby boomers are turning 65 every day.

As Trump sends people back across the border and discourages others from coming to the United States, he is aggravating the biggest obstacle to economic growth, a labor shortage. Unauthorized immigrants make up about 5 percent of the U.S. civilian workforce, according to Pew Research Center estimates, and reducing that number – about 8 million workers – will drive up costs for produce and construction. Immigrants working illegally in this country have accounted for nearly half of the nation’s 800,000 crop farm workers in recent years.

Deporting and scaring off immigrant workers is also hindering the construction industry. That effect will be especially pronounced in fast-growing North Carolina, which has 342,000 immigrants here illegally, the eighth highest total among the states.

Tim Minton, director of government affairs for the North Carolina Home Builders Association, said he did not know what percentage of home construction workers could be affected by a crackdown on immigrants here illegally, but he said his industry is struggling to find workers.

“There’s just not enough bodies in the construction industry to keep up the pace,” he said. There is an 80 percent shortage of workers who know how to do framing work, he said, and there are reports of builders trying to poach workers from other builders’ sites. The labor shortage, combined with rising lumber prices, Minton said, means: “It’s just going to get more expensive to build houses.”

Lee Wicker of the N.C. Growers Association said he hasn’t seen signs of a new crackdown, but an ongoing labor shortage is getting worse. “There continues to be a shortage of workers, legal or otherwise,” he said. “All commodities are struggling.”

Labor needs can’t be an excuse for employers not to follow immigration laws that call for verifying a worker’s immigration status, though that has been a common practice. And in theory, fewer immigrant workers should drive up the pay of American workers. But the actual situation is that the economy needs the boost provided by workers here illegally and American workers are not stepping in to fill the labor gap as immigrant workers are pushed out of the economy.

A provision inserted in the congressional budget compromise and signed by President Trump could double the number of guest-worker visas. That is a concession by the Republicans that President Trump’s blanket “America First” approach to jobs won’t cover key parts of the nation’s labor needs, especially if the economy is to grow. But a simple expansion of guest worker visas – a visa that benefits Trump in hiring workers at his hotels and resorts – isn’t a good fix for workers. Those who come here on a short-term H-2B visa are effectively shackled to the employer who sponsors them and vulnerable to abuses in pay and work conditions and sexual assaults.

If the president wants to expand the U.S. economy, he should start by switching from building a border wall to building political bridges in Congress so sensible and comprehensive immigration reform can happen at long last. Otherwise, he’s just walling-in the economy he wants to expand.