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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Immigration Group Twists Ryan’s Words

A group that opposes the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” immigration bill claims that Rep. Paul Ryan said “we have a labor shortage in Wisconsin.” Ryan, who supports an immigration overhaul, didn’t say there was a shortage now — except in a few low-wage industries. Instead, he said there would be widespread labor shortages in the future “when the baby boomers are fully retired.”

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which says it supports “enforcement of U.S. immigration laws and overall reductions in immigration to restore a fair labor market for all,” launched the attack ad in Wisconsin the week of Aug. 5.

The ad says, “Congressman Paul Ryan says we have a labor shortage in Wisconsin. That’s right, a labor shortage.” It then lists high unemployment rates in Wisconsin cities, saying: “Tell that to the 12 percent unemployed in Racine, the 10 percent in Milwaukee, the 9 percent in Janesville. Thousands are looking for work.”

But Ryan spoke in the future tense about labor shortages. On its website, FAIR links to his comments in a July 25, 2013, interview with National Journal. That interview clearly doesn’t show Ryan claiming a widespread shortage of labor now in Wisconsin, or anywhere else. Ryan was asked about his “economic case” for an immigration overhaul.

Ryan, July 25: Immigrants bring talent and hard work. They started a quarter of new businesses in 2011 alone. Immigrant-owned small businesses employ about 4.7 million people. We are educating people here and not letting them stay when they could actually contribute and create businesses; instead, they go overseas and end up competing against us. We’re going to have labor shortages when the baby boomers are fully retired.

Ryan made similar comments in a June 19 radio interview on “The Laura Ingraham Show,” saying there would be labor shortages “not now, but in the future.” He said, “Immigration, in a decade or so, can help us.”

Ryan, July 19: Not now, but in the future we’re going to have labor shortages. We’ve got 10,000 people retiring each and every day in America when the Baby Boomers retire. We are not like Europe, we’re not like Japan in that our birthrates are really low, but they’re not high enough. Immigration, in a decade or so, can help us. That means we need to get an immigration system that works. We need an immigration system that works to bring people to this country who want to contribute.

The FAIR ad misrepresents what Ryan actually said.

Update, Aug. 14: We updated this piece after FAIR Media Director Ira Mehlman told us the group was pointing to Ryan’s comments about dairy farmers having trouble finding workers in Wisconsin as evidence of the lawmaker speaking of labor shortages in the present tense. In the National Journal article, Ryan said: “The dairy farmers in western Wisconsin are having a hard time finding anyone to help them produce their products, which are mostly cheese. If they can’t find workers, then they can’t produce, and we’ll end up importing. The flip side of the argument is: Just raise wages enough to attract people. But you raise wages too much in certain industries, then you’ll get rid of those industries, and we’ll just have to import.”

In that same interview, Ryan says “labor shortages” will come “when the baby boomers are fully retired.”

FAIR points out that Ryan has made similar comments about the dairy industry and other low-wage or seasonal jobs needing immigrant employees. At a forum in June sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers, Ryan said: “It’s the dairy farmer in western Wisconsin who needs labor. It’s the manufacturer. It’s the hospitality industry in the Wisconsin Dells in the summer season—the nursery growers. There are pockets in the sector of this slow economy that really need work and labor.”

The FAIR ad suggests Ryan was wrong to talk of a “labor shortage,” listing high unemployment rates in Wisconsin cities. But Ryan wasn’t speaking of a general or widespread shortage in these instances, as we’ve noted elsewhere in this updated story. Instead, he said that “there are pockets” in the “slow economy” that need labor.

For the record, the Wisconsin dairy industry has said it faces a shortage of labor. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in January: “Even when Wisconsin has a high unemployment rate, there’s a shortage of people applying for jobs at dairy farms, said Laurie Fischer, executive director of the Dairy Business Association, based in Green Bay. ‘We believe there should be some type of agriculture guest worker program. That’s been our board policy,’ Fischer said.”

A coalition of industry farm groups that supports an immigration overhaul has proposed a work visa program and a pathway to permanent legal status, the Journal Sentinel reported.

The ad goes on to say that Ryan “wants to grant amnesty to illegal aliens and bring in millions more foreign workers to take our jobs.”

In that National Journal interview, Ryan said there should be “different visa categories that should fluctuate with the needs of the economy.” He said that legal immigrants should be at the “front of the line” and “probationary visas will go to undocumented immigrants, who will be able to stay and work so long as they honor the terms of their probation, so long as the border and the interior enforcement is actually implemented.”

As for the impact of the Senate immigration bill on jobs, as we’ve said before, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill “would cause the unemployment rate to be slightly higher for several years than projected under current law” and would cause a slight dip in average wages. But over the long-term, CBO said average wages would increase, by 2025, compared with what they would be under current law. Also, the bill might or might not have a negative effect on current American workers in the short-term.

The CBO report looked at average wages for all workers, including immigrants who would be on a 13-year path to citizenship under the bill. So a dip in average wages does “not necessarily imply that current U.S. residents would be worse off,” CBO said.

— Lori Robertson