Immigration

For Successful Prison Reform, Scale Back Immigration

Immigrant day laborers wait for work in Staten Island, N.Y., in 2010. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Former convicts seek the same low-skill jobs often performed by immigrants working for low wages.

Thousands of nonviolent inmates are getting out of prison early thanks to President Trump, who worked with a bipartisan group in Congress to pass into law the First Step Act, the biggest prison reform in decades.

But these newly freed Americans still face enormous challenges.

Employers are leery of hiring people with criminal records. Historically, three in four former inmates have been unable to find employment a year after release. Without gainful employment, many fall back into their old lives of crime. Those who do find jobs are paid up to 20 percent less than the average employee.

President Trump’s prison reform won’t be truly complete until he ensures that these former inmates can find good jobs. The easiest way to do so? Crack down on illegal immigration — and also scale back legal immigration. By shrinking the number of foreign workers pouring into our country, the president could engineer a tighter labor market that forces businesses to hire ex-convicts and other Americans on the margins of the work force.

Each year, more than 600,000 Americans are released from prison and begin searching for jobs. These men and women hope to become contributing members of society. But too often, bleak economic prospects leave them suffering in poverty — and they often turn to illegal activity. Nearly 68 percent are reincarcerated within three years.

Loose labor markets make it harder for former inmates to find jobs, because employers can be more selective about whom they hire. This could mean hiring an illegal immigrant, whose criminal record is unknown in the United States, over Americans looking for a second chance. It’s no wonder many African-American men become disillusioned with the American dream when they’re treated as second-class citizens in their native land.

And it’s outrageous that employers who hire illegal immigrants are almost never charged with crimes.

Decades of lax immigration enforcement have oversaturated the labor market. Figures are debated and hard to verify, but at least 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States. (Researchers from Yale and MIT recently gave an average of 22 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S.) Over 70 percent hold jobs. And more are coming every month. U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner Kevin McAleenan told reporters that, in February alone, 76,000 foreigners were arrested or turned back at the southern border. This is more than twice the number of border apprehensions during the same period of time in 2018. Many more have slipped through undetected.

High levels of legal immigration have likewise swamped the job market. America doles out roughly 1 million lifetime work permits each year. Many permits go to recent immigrants’ unskilled family members, who receive preferential treatment due to “chain migration” laws. The government also hands out hundreds of thousands of temporary work permits to guest laborers.

Many of these foreigners, especially ones who crossed the border illegally or came here on seasonal “H-2B” visas, have limited skills. So they flock to manual labor or service industries — the same fields that former convicts look to for jobs. In the past two decades, immigrants without high-school diplomas have increased the size of the low-skilled work force by nearly 25 percent.

Competition with immigrant laborers — both legal and illegal — drives down less-skilled Americans’ wages by as much as $1,500 each year, according to Harvard economist George Borjas.

A number of proposed immigration reforms could relieve the pressure on American workers.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) recently introduced a bill that would require all employers to use E-Verify. This free online system cross-references the employment documentation submitted by newly hired laborers and determines whether they’re authorized to work in the United States. E-Verify normally gives an answer in just seconds, so it’s not a burden on businesses. It’s the most effective way to deter illegal immigration.

The Trump administration is also trying to eliminate an Obama-era policy that awards “H-4B” work visas to the spouses of certain guest laborers. Many of these H-4B visa holders occupy entry-level hospitality, food-service, and secretarial jobs that could otherwise be filled by recently released prisoners.

Tightening the labor market would boost Americans’ wages and job prospects.

Just look what happened in Chicago last year. An investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement found that the popular Cloverhill Bakery had employed roughly 800 illegal workers. After those illegal laborers were terminated, the bakery immediately filled the positions with American workers — mostly minorities — and raised some employees’ pay by $4 per hour.

Tight labor markets force companies to get creative to fill open positions. Look at Dane County, Wis., which has an unemployment rate of just 2 percent. Businesses have turned to minimum-security prisons to find workers. Firms employ inmates through pre-release work programs and pay them market wages, empowering convicts to reintegrate into society even before they’re released.

President Trump deserves immense credit for supporting prison reform. But to ensure that former convicts truly get a second chance at life, the president ought to curb both legal and illegal immigration — and thus force businesses to hire ex-offenders and other struggling Americans.

Tom Broadwater is president of Americans4Work, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that advocates in behalf of American minority, veteran, youth, and disabled workers.

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