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What can past immigration tells us about low-skilled workers now?

As readers of our blog know, the new immigration bill has met several road blocks that have prevented it from moving faster through the Senate.  Currently, there are rising concerns among conservatives over whether giving citizenship to the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the United States is a good idea or not.  As some conservatives point out, this influx of low-skilled workers will flood the market, possibly raising unemployment to unimaginable levels.

This week, we wanted to take a look at past immigration practices to see if history can give us insight into what the future could bring and whether the concerns by some across the nation are warranted when it comes to employment in the U.S.

According to a history and Asian-American studies professor at Columbia University, there were few restrictions on immigration at the turn of the century. Many of the immigrants who arrived in the largest of waves through Ellis Island were considered to be in the lower-skilled strata of the workforce. But as generations went on and these first immigrants found more opportunities, their skill levels changed and began climbing the employment ladder. With current immigration, tougher restrictions mean that the influx of immigrants are generally higher skilled, coming to the U.S. because of employment visas and student visas.

But with the Gang of Eight suggesting citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S., some worry that this could saturate a market that is already struggling to find jobs for American citizens in this skill bracket. Some worry that there will not be enough jobs and unemployment rates will soar. Others point to the past where large influxes of immigrants were able to find jobs that built the economy to what it is today. Experts on both sides of the issue continue to debate this though, leaving many here in Florida to question whether the impact will be as harmful as conservatives expect.

Source: PBS, "How Do Low-Skilled Workers Fit Into Equation of Immigration Reform?" May 27, 2013

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