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Immigrant workers could help alleviate industry’s labor shortage

By Josh Boak
AP Economics Writer

For all of Donald Trump’s talk of building a border wall and deporting 11 million unauthorized immigrants who are mainly Hispanic, foreigners who are moving to the U.S. are now more likely to come from Asia than from Mexico or Latin America.

And compared with Americans in general, immigrants today are disproportionately well-educated and entrepreneurial. They are transforming the country in ways largely ignored by the political jousting over how immigration is affecting U.S. culture, economy and national security.

As recently as three years ago, according to U.S. Census figures, India and China had eclipsed Mexico as the top sources of U.S. immigrants, whether authorized or not. In 2013, 147,000 Chinese immigrants and 129,000 Indians came to the U.S. The number for Mexicans was 125,000.

Most of the Asian immigrants arrived in the United States legally — through the use of work, student or family visas.

Immigrants are also more likely now to be U.S. citizens. Nearly half of immigrants who are older than 25 — a group comprising 18 million people — are naturalized citizens. In 2000, the comparable figure was just 30 percent, according to Census figures.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent drives near the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Sunland Park, N.M., recently. Construction officials have long called for reform of the country’s immigration laws. They argue that giving more foreigners a legal means of working in the U.S. will help alleviate the industry’s persistent labor shortage. (AP File Photo/Russell Contreras)

A U.S. Border Patrol agent drives near the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Sunland Park, N.M., recently. Construction officials have long called for reform of the country’s immigration laws. They argue that giving more foreigners a legal means of working in the U.S. will help alleviate the industry’s persistent labor shortage. (AP File Photo/Russell Contreras)

Simultaneously, more Mexicans without documentation are returning home. The number of Mexicans who are in the United States illegally tumbled by nearly 8 percent in the past six years, falling to 5.85 million, the Pew Research Center found. Border Patrol apprehensions, one gauge of illegal crossings, last year reached their lowest point since 1971.

Construction officials have long called for reform of the country’s immigration laws. Among other things, they’ve argued that giving more foreigners a legal means of working in the U.S. will help alleviate the industry’s persistent labor shortage.

Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, said he and other AGC officials think increased immigration will only provide short-term relief. To really eliminate the labor shortage, he said, the industry will have to rebuild its domestic supply of skilled workers.

That will require high schools to place a greater emphasis on what used to be called vocational training.

“We are realistic that that will take a couple of years to have an impact on the labor market,” Turmail said.

Turmail said AGC officials are just as interested in making it easier for construction companies to stay on the right side of immigration laws. He said general contractors can now be held liable when their subcontractors employ illegal immigrants on a job site.

Although the demand for construction workers is fairly consistent throughout the country, contractors in certain states rely far more on immigrant labor than those in others. Not surprisingly, immigrants’ share of the construction workforce tends to decrease the farther a state is away from the U.S. border with Mexico.

Last year, the National Association of Homebuilders reported that only 5.2 percent of the construction workforce in Wisconsin was made up of workers who were born in other countries. The comparable figure for Texas was 39.7 percent.

The National Association of Homebuilders found that foreign-born construction workers tend to be employed in masonry, drywall installation and roofing. Those are the parts of the industry that are also least likely to expect workers to have a high school diploma.

Despite immigrants’ prevalence in certain places and industries, many Americans continue to feel animosity toward immigrant workers. But there are signs that the recent influx of educated immigrants has begun to reshape opinions, according to a Pew survey released this month.

Two-thirds of Republicans and 54 percent of whites said they think immigration harms U.S. workers. But a majority of Democrats, Hispanics and the college-educated said they felt immigrants made society better off.

By comparison, almost all economists view immigrants as helpful — even essential — for the nation’s continued prosperity. Because of the aging U.S. population causing more retirements, most economists say immigrants are needed so that the workforce increases to sustain economic growth.

With the share of U.S. residents born abroad at its highest level in a century, immigrants increasingly defy the stereotypes that tend to shape discussion of the issue. Consider: About 40 percent of Indian immigrants hold a graduate degree. Fewer than 12 percent of native-born Americans do. And earnings for a median Indian immigrant household exceed $100,000, more than twice the U.S. median.

The result of this recent influx is that 40 million-plus immigrants in the United States more and more resemble people on the extremes of the country’s economic spectrum, ranging from super-rich tech titans to poor agriculture workers.

One place where the changes in immigration trends are most noticeable is the political swing state of North Carolina. That state has seen the share that immigrants make up of its population quadruple from 1990 to nearly 8 percent. Similar increases have occurred in Georgia, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

None of these states approaches California and New York, where immigrants make up more than 20 percent of the population and which have large concentrations of educated Chinese immigrants.

AP staff writers Allen G. Breed in Raleigh, N.C., and Elliot Spagat in San Diego also contributed to this report, as did The Daily Reporter Associate Editor Dan Shaw.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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