Some doubting bill’s helpfulness
Immigration proposal at issue
Dave Sargent, a 77-yearold vegetable farmer near Prairie Grove, supports President Donald Trump and other Republicans’ efforts to cut off illegal immigration. His voice rose when he said he wants the government to do more to prevent temporary agriculture workers from countries to the south from overstaying their visas.
But he splits with an Arkansas senator and other Republicans on at least one point: He doesn’ t believe native-born workers would take the place of the two or three dozen immigrants he hired to harvest hundreds of acres last year,
increasingly using convey- or belts and other machines he put together because he found too few workers.
“You can’t hire an American citizen, a white person or black, to work in the fields. You can’t,” Sargent said, recalling a couple of nonimmigrants he once hired who lasted an hour or two before leaving. He blamed Americans’ laziness and said he would hire people of any nationality who can do the job and legally work.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., earlier this month introduced a bill to slash the number of legal permanent residents, often called green card holders, admitted each year from about 1 million to about 500,000 within the next decade. He partnered with Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., on the bill, which comes amid Trump’s promises to extend and fortify the southern border fence and expand immigration law enforcement.
Cotton’s primary argument is most of the immigrants go into relatively lowskilled jobs in agriculture or meat-packing that would otherwise go to residents and do so for less pay, keeping wages low for that part of the workforce, according to a news release on the proposal and Cotton’s public statements since.
Researchers and business owners in Northwest Arkansas, however, said jobs are not a zero-sum game and immigrants have been important, even indispensable, for the region’s economy.
“I think our economy here would be paralyzed,” said Fadil Bayyari, a philanthropist and CEO of Bayyari Properties and Construction. His workforce is at least half Hispanic, he said, with immigrants who work at every skill level and couldn’t be replaced within the area’s labor pool.
“We live in a nation of immigrants, whether we want to accept it or not. They’re the ones who built it, the ones who will continue to build it,” said Bayyari, himself a Palestinian-American.
Cotton’s proposal would achieve its goals partly by taking away adult citizens’ and legal residents’ ability to sponsor their adult parents, adult siblings and adult children who wish to join them here. They still would be able to sponsor spouses and minor children.
Family ties accounted for two-thirds of the 1 million legal permanent residents accepted in fiscal 2013, according to a 2014 report from the Congressional Research Service, which analyzes policies for members of Congress.
Family sponsorship can take years or decades. A Mexican whose parents legally live in the U. S. and applied to join them in 1995 would just now be approved, for example, according to the latest U.S. State Department visa bulletin.
Cotton said at a Springdale town hall last week his restrictions wouldn’t affect the 150,000 or so legal residents who come with employment-based visas to work at typically high-skill positions
with specific companies, and the United States would remain the most generous country in the world for immigrant admissions.
He said earlier this month wages for high school dropouts and graduates have dropped for decades and immigration was part of the reason, though he acknowledged automation and other changes are also involved.
“It’s pulling the rug out from underneath them, and unless we reverse this trend, we’re going to create a near-permanent underclass for whom the American dream is just out of reach,” Cotton told reporters.
George Borjas, an economics professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, argues for this perspective, pointing to the basic principle a larger pool of workers lowers demand and pay. Immigrants who agree to lower pay reduce wages by tens of billions of dollars for nonimmigrants, he argued in a 2013 report for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates limiting immigration.
The bill also would cap refugee acceptance at 50,000 a year, similar to the average during President George W. Bush’s administration, but 28 percent lower than President Barack Obama’s average. Refugees also can work in the country legally.
A request for comment on the proposal wasn’t returned by the office of U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. Cotton’s office referred to his previous statements in response to questions.
Other research found a more complicated picture.
The Congressional Budget Office, which analyzes the impact of proposals, found a failed bipartisan 2013 immigration reform law allowing a significant increase in legal immigration would chip all wages down by 0.1 percent at first because of all the new workers, but would raise them five times as much by 2033 as they fed earnings back into the economy.
Construction, manufacturing and other businesses in Arkansas saved $147 million in wages a year with immigrant labor, supporting part of Cotton’s argument, a 2013 report by Little Rock’s Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation found. But the same immigrants contribute billions of dollars to the economy, including almost $1 billion in Benton and Washington counties, by spending what they earn and sustaining other jobs, the report states.
“This labor has allowed the state’s economic output to expand; in its absence, a substantial portion of Arkansas’ economic vitality would likely have disappeared,” the report found.
Economist Kathy Deck, who directs the University of Arkansas’ Center for Business and Economic Research, likewise said Tyson Foods and other major drivers of the region’s economy probably wouldn’t have grown to their size without immigrants.
Most of Northwest Arkansas’ immigrants are Hispanic, an ethnic group that includes more than 80,000 in the metropolitan area, according to census estimates. One-third of Hispanic workers have clustered in transportation or in production at Tyson and similar companies, twice the rate of the overall population. Another 18 percent work in construction or maintenance, almost twice the overall rate.
The concentration is even more pronounced among the smaller Marshallese community, where nearly three in five workers are in production or transportation.
“The fact that we have a concentration of folks who have experience with poultry processing or construction or whatever it is means that those sectors can grow more quickly than they would in another area,” she said, adding the region’s unemployment rate has long been too low to suggest lots of people would have taken the jobs otherwise.
Population growth also helps sustain the Razorback Greenway, museums, hospitals and other amenities, Deck said.
“It’s very difficult to improve the overall prosperity of a region if the pie is not growing,” she said.
JOBS AND EARNINGS
The region’s unemployment rate is below 3 percent and growing demand has kept wages high regardless of who’s taking the job, said Phil Jones, business development officer at C.R. Crawford Construction. The firm hires only U.S.-born or naturalized citizens, but about one in five workers at C.R. Crawford and its concrete subsidiary are former immigrants or part of immigrant families, he said.
“Our industry is so competitive, that really no matter whether someone is an immigrant, first generation, second generation, whatever it might be, they’re going to be paid a competitive wage because that’s what our industry demands right now,” he said. Without them, “you would not see the growth or the ability to sustain the construction pace in Northwest Arkansas.”
Tyson and George’s Chicken didn’t return requests for comment about Cotton’s proposal, but Tyson has said it’s proud of its diversity and often points out its beginning pay is above minimum wage and includes retirement, vacation and health benefits.
Sargent, the Prairie Grove farmer, said he paid his temporary workers $14 an hour.
Immigrants’ children and grandchildren also tend to move into higher- skilled, higher paying jobs and industries as they settle in, expanding and diversifying their economic contributions, according to the Pew Research Center and other researchers.
Because of all of these factors, Cotton’s proposal is the wrong direction, said Mireya Reith, director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition that advocates for immigrants.
“None of his proposals address the broken immigration system,” she said.
Jacqueline Perez of Springdale holds a sign Wednesday at a town hall meeting held by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., at Springdale High School’s Pat Walker Performing Arts Center.