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Immigrants Are 13 Percent of US Workforce - 2001-08-03

Immigrants, both legal and illegal, make up 13 percent of the U.S. workforce, the highest percentage in 70 years. They are entering the United States at the rate of about one million a year, and filling job vacancies at both ends of the economic spectrum.

They are taking high tech jobs and staffing hospitals and universities. They are also working as meat packers, waiters, and vegetable pickers. And many industries want more.

John Gay of the American Hotel Association is part of the "Essential Worker Immigration Coalition," which is urging Congress to permit more immigrants to enter the United States. "We formed about two years ago because companies in our industries could not find, still can't find, enough of the lesser skilled and unskilled workers that we are focussing on. Our coalition members include hotels and restaurants, construction, nursing homes, and others health care industries," he said.

Faced with critical shortages, hospitals are recruiting nurses from the Philippines. Textile plants are recruiting workers from Central America. The U.S. coal industry is considering recruiting miners from Ukraine.

The Chicago school system has been actively recruiting overseas for two years now. Spokesman Sandra Kramer says that in 1999, a critical shortage of science and math teachers caused the Chicago school board president to look elsewhere. "He said if we can't find teachers in America, we're going to find them all over the world, and that's exactly what happened. He went out and created a program that would reach talented individuals all over the world," she said.

Chicago's teachers this year come from 31 different countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe. Sandra Kramer says several other school systems are following Chicago's lead. "Some of our students have not met people outside of their communities, let alone met someone from Denmark, somebody from Senegal, somebody from Bogota. It's remarkable to them," she observed.

John Gay predicts efforts to recruit immigrants will increase in the years ahead. "Looking into the future demographically, the baby boom is going to be retiring. That's a double shot at our industry. Not only will people be leaving the workforce, but there will also be an increase in demand for things like travel, a second home, health care, eventually nursing homes," he said.

The U.S. government agrees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the nation will have five million more jobs than workers by the end of this decade.