Roughly Speaking Dan Rodricks: Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Crab pickers, landscapers and bad policy

Maryland’s “crab crisis,” the lack of seasonal workers for about half of the Eastern Shore crab houses — a dilemma caused by a statutory limit on the number of visas the federal government issues and a change by the Trump administration in the way those visas are distributed — comes from a stubborn mindset: Without strict limits, American workers will be harmed by an influx of foreigners.

There was never much evidence to support that position. In fact, some important research shows just the opposite: Immigrants and seasonal workers are good for business; they don't steal jobs from Americans, and they actually contribute to better incomes for workers already here.

About eight years ago, I came across the work of Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California-Davis and, at the time, a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Peri wanted to know what effects immigrants had on American employment rates, productivity and wages in regional labor markets. His examination of data went back 50 years, to the early 1960s.

He concluded that there was no evidence that immigrants crowd out U.S.-born workers in either the short term or long run.

The immigration bonus: Newcomers boost salaries and opportunities for all »

In fact, Peri found that having a significant foreign-born workforce in a regional labor market increased the income of American workers. He estimated, for example, that the flow of immigrants into the country from 1990 to 2007 resulted in a general increase of worker income by up to 9.9 percent. That represented, in 2005 dollars, an increase of about $5,100 in the yearly income for the average U.S. worker during that time.

How so?

Immigrants and seasonal workers take jobs that increasingly educated and skilled Americans don’t want.

Consider construction: Companies that employ young immigrants in manual labor find that, with a stable and productive workforce, they have opportunities to expand. And that, Peri concluded, increases the demand for supervisors, coordinators, designers and other higher-skill positions.

“Those are occupations typically staffed by U.S.-born workers who have moved away from manual construction jobs,” Peri wrote. “This typically pushes U.S.-born workers toward better-paying jobs, enhances the efficiency of production, and creates jobs.”

We can apply Peri’s model to the crab houses of the Eastern Shore.

In the 1980s, they started hiring women from Mexico to pick crab meat, a job that Americans no longer wanted to do. That’s a reality of social progress: As small-town life gave way to suburbanization, and as the children of pickers graduated from high school and college, they eschewed the crab house for better employment elsewhere. They expected more.

“Data show that, on net, immigrants expand the U.S. economy’s productive capacity, stimulate investment, and promote specialization that in the long run boosts productivity,” Peri stated. “There is no evidence that these effects take place at the expense of jobs for workers born in the United States.”

And yet, a cynical president and conservatives in Congress play to what Michael Reisch, a University of Maryland professor and scholar on social policy, calls “demographic anxiety,” the fear that immigrants will forever change the country’s racial and ethnic composition. From that flows draconian rhetoric about immigrants and criminality, and from that stepped-up roundups and deportations.

And though they’re not immigrants, seasonal workers get thrown into this mix. Hard-liners in Congress worry that they’ll overstay their visas, so they’ve made the program for getting them here tougher.

And that’s bad for business.

Gibson Porter, owner of Gibson Landscapes in Baltimore County, went through hell last year with the H-2B visa program, the same one at the center of the “crab crisis.”

When he started his business in 1995, Porter wanted to hire Americans, but that did not work out well. By contrast, he found that the 13 Mexican men hired seasonally under the H-2B program were much more reliable and productive.

He was in the program for 15 years.

But a change in law made by Congress — specifically, the elimination of visa exemptions for returning workers — suddenly made it impossible for Porter to get his crew into Maryland. He tried to hire locally, but of the nearly 30 people he took on, Porter says, only one stayed with the company.

Patching together crews with unreliable and inexperienced workers cost him dearly. Jobs took longer to complete, increasing payroll costs. Porter lost clients and, with them, an estimated $55,000 in revenue. He had to turn down new business. “We had to continually lower bills to clients to compensate for our substandard workforce,” Porter says. “Clients lost faith in our ability to deliver the quality they were accustomed to getting from us.”

He somehow survived. And this year, Porter succeeded in getting his Mexican workers back. Business is better. “But I was one of the lucky ones,” he says. “There are many more unlucky than lucky companies this year. ... And who knows what’s going to happen next year?”

drodricks@baltsun.com

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