President Donald Trump won the White House thanks to record support from rural Americans. He promised that, on his watch, flyover country would be “forgotten no longer.”
More than two years after his inauguration, many rural, working-class Americans are still struggling. Employment rates for prime-age workers are 10% lower in rural towns compared to urban centers.
Trump didn’t create this problem, but he can solve it. By following through on his campaign promise to curb overall immigration levels, the president can tighten the stagnant labor market to pull marginalized, rural Americans off the economic sidelines.
The hardships of rural America stem in large part from an over-saturated labor market fueled by years of lax immigration policies.
Immigrants have flocked to rural areas at unparalleled rates in the last three decades. By one estimate, rural areas have seen their immigrant populations grow by 130% since 1990.
There’s no sign this influx will slow any time soon. Last month, an unprecedented 100,000 immigrants crossed the U.S. southern border. And most Democrats — and some Republicans — are calling for amnesty policies that would attract more immigration.
Even Trump’s inner circle is working on a proposal that would increase the number of foreign workers allowed into the United States, according to a Politico report.
That would be a costly mistake. Immigrant workers, often lacking formal education or vocational training, flock to less-skilled jobs in manual labor, manufacturing, construction and service industries. Already 3 in 4 farm workers, 1 in 3 meatpacking workers, 1 in 4 restaurant workers and 1 in 7 construction workers are foreign-born. Many are here illegally.
Employers readily exploit this over-saturated labor market to the detriment of American workers. Many opt to hire foreign workers they know they can underpay. Nearly 40% of undocumented workers have been paid below minimum wage. And more than 80% work overtime hours without the commensurate “time and a half” wage boost.
Excess labor supply enables employers to offer bottom-of-the-barrel wages to U.S. employees. Stiff competition with immigrants in the less-skilled labor force depresses the wages of American workers without high school diplomas by up to $1,500 every year.
Tightening the labor market by restricting immigration would improve economic prospects for Americans in rural areas.
Consider what happened in Stillmore, Georgia, last decade. A federal investigation revealed that illegal immigrants comprised 75% of the workforce at the local poultry company, Crider Inc. After law enforcement raided the plant, Crider had hundreds of open positions to fill. The company was forced to hire able-bodied Americans in search of work — and raised starting wages by over a dollar.
Trump promised to champion these forgotten workers. If he honors his campaign pledge, curbs immigration, and delivers the jobs, they’ll deliver the votes come 2020.
This column was originally published in The Detroit News.
The views expressed in CCNS member articles are not necessarily the views or positions of the entire CCNS. They are the views of the authors, who are members of the CCNS.