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  • Economic ProspectsCan We Please Stop Blaming Immigrants?
  • Robert Pollin (bio)

Hostility in the United States toward immigrants has risen sharply in recent years. The strongest sign of this was the law signed last April by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, which gave the police broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant. Two U.S. Senators, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have gone so far as to propose repealing the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants automatic citizenship to all babies born on U.S. soil, regardless of the citizenship status of the baby's parents. Of course, these actions are primarily a response to the economic wreckage caused by the 2008-2009 Wall Street collapse. But they fly in the face of evidence, which shows that immigrants are by no means responsible for mass unemployment or the cutbacks in social benefits that U.S. residents are now experiencing.

Immigration into the U.S. has been rising steadily since the 1970s, after having fallen for sixty years from its peak level around 1910. At present, immigrant arrivals—running at about 1.25 million people per year—account for 40 percent of population growth nationally, and a much larger share in some regions. Something like 35-40 percent of new arrivals are undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America with low education and limited English skills.

According to polling data, large majorities of native U.S. residents hold much more favorable attitudes toward immigrants, including undocumented workers, than Governor Brewer and Senators Kyl and Graham. Still, politicians do not make a habit of taking actions that lack popular support. The anti-immigration sentiment is real, even if among only a minority of the population, including those supporting the right-wing Tea Party insurgency.

Nobody should be surprised by this development. Due to the 2008-2009 Wall Street collapse and ensuing recession, the official [End Page 86] unemployment rate averaged 9.7 percent for the first eight months of 2010, although a more accurate figure would be close to 20 percent. State and local governments throughout the country are sharply cutting education, health, and social safety net programs. This is all after the recession ended in mid-2009, at least according to the official declaration of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Immigrants Don't Take Away Jobs From Everyone Else

All kinds of people are justifiably enraged and frightened by the dismal economy. Some have concluded that immigrants are taking away the jobs that they themselves need. The logic seems straightforward. Let's assume that, at any given time, there are a fixed number of jobs available. If immigrants take a significant share of the available jobs at low wages, that will mean fewer jobs are available for U.S. natives. The increased competition for the given number of jobs will also weaken workers' bargaining power, and thus drive wages down.

But does this simple logic accurately describe what is really happening out in the world? In fact, after decades of debate, including studies by researchers from a wide range of disciplines and political persuasions, the weight of evidence strongly supports the conclusion that immigrants—including undocumented workers—are not hurting job opportunities or wages for native U.S. workers.

Some of the most innovative research on the jobs question has been done by the UC-Berkeley economist David Card. Focusing on data from the 2000 census, Card compared local labor market conditions in the seventeen largest metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. There were two reasons for making this comparison. First, the immigrant population in these cities is very high, at nearly 27 percent, which is roughly twice that of the country as a whole. So if we are going to observe the effects of immigration on jobs anywhere in the U.S., it will be in these large cities. In addition, the percentage of immigrants varies dramatically between these different cities, with Philadelphia and Detroit at a low of 8 percent of the total population while the figure is 35 percent in Los Angeles and Miami.

If immigrants are indeed making conditions more difficult for native workers, we...


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pp. 86-89
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