Immigration and the Workforce: A discussion with Peter Cove


By: Sarah Eller, 2017-2018 Work First Fellow


On January 15, a 39-year-old, 30-year resident of the United States by the name of Jorge Garcia was deported to Mexico. At the age of ten, he was brought to the United States, and from there, he put down roots; he married an American woman, raised two children, and worked as a landscaper outside of Detroit. He was—in many respects—American.

In recent years, the immigration debate has occupied a central place in American politics. On the day President Trump first announced his candidacy in 2015, he promised to overhaul an immigration system that he believed was far too generous at letting undocumented immigrants remain in the United States. Despite pushback from Democrats in Congress culminating in a government shutdown, Jorge Garcia's deportation delivered on that promise.

Many people who advocate for tighter immigration enforcement do so out of fear that immigrants are taking jobs away from deserving Americans. In then-candidate Trump's words, "A lot of [Americans] can't get jobs. They can't get jobs, because there are no jobs, because China has our jobs and Mexico has our jobs. They all have jobs."[1] This speaks to the widely-held belief that more immigrants means fewer opportunities and less money for Americans. But this belief is largely unsupported by data. A recent study by the Brookings Institute shows that—in fact, immigration creates more employment opportunities for native-born Americans, as immigrants account for an outsize proportion of entrepreneurs.[2] In addition, immigrants tend to fill the more physically demanding jobs Americans are less willing to do. Still, many Americans feel they are losing out.

In light of this ongoing debate, I sat down with America Works founder Peter Cove to get his perspective. Peter Cove is a workforce policy expert who, for decades, has championed reforms aimed at getting Americans off of public assistance and placed in jobs. Below is an outline of our discussion.


What should our immigration system look like?

In keeping with his larger "work first" philosophy, Mr. Cove believes that our system of admitting immigrants should be based on how each individual immigrant can contribute to the workforce. He advocates for a merit-based system where people at all skill levels, from low-skilled laborers up through the ranks to high-skilled professionals, should be granted admission so long as they are willing to work. This system would check immigrants' professional capabilities against what jobs are available in the United States and make decisions accordingly.  Additionally, Mr. Cove says, immigration agencies should work to ensure that those applying to live in the United States will act responsibly and integrate themselves into our culture upon their arrival.  Participation in the American Dream, he says, is key.


Will advances in technology limit opportunities for low-skilled immigrants, thereby cutting down on immigration?

In recent years, there has been much discussion about how ever-advancing technology will impact low-skilled laborers. Many predict that much of the work that is now done by low-skilled laborers will soon be performed by cost-saving technology. Mr. Cove disagrees. He believes that while advances in technology may temporarily cut down on the number of low-skilled workers coming to the United States, those technological advances will bring more people to the United States in the long-run. A self-described optimist, Mr. Cove believes that the technology that will temporarily replace certain jobs will ultimately demand more labor—more engineers to create the technology, more investors to fund innovative projects, and more hands to build, service, and maintain new technology. Many of the jobs that will be created as a result of technological advance, Mr. Cove believes, will open more jobs for immigrants to fill.


What about immigrants who—for one reason or another—are unable to work?

Should those immigrants who have, let's say, severely-limiting physical impairments be left behind just because they are unable to contribute to the workforce? Mr. Cove says no. Consistent with his philosophy, he believes that many people currently exempted from federal work requirements due to a disability have the capacity to work. He does concede, however, that the system should be fair. It should make exceptions to those truly unable to work based on individual circumstances. Still, the system should be grounded in merit.


Should education be factored into a merit-based system?

And what about immigrants who come to the United States not to work but to receive an education? Mr. Cove says we should also consider potential academic contributions when determining an immigrant's eligibility to enter the United States.


What about undocumented immigrants? Should there be a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are working and contributing to "the American Dream?"

Mr. Cove says absolutely. He argues that those undocumented immigrants who are in the United States working, raising families, and contributing to our success should be given a path to citizenship. People like Jorge Garcia should have the opportunity to participate in the American Dream without fear of detention or deportation. Himself the product of immigration, Peter Cove says, "We have to be very open. That's what America's all about."