In a report released late last month, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) rehashes a number of tired, discredited arguments about the impact of immigration on wages and job opportunities for native-born workers. The report, entitled Poverty and Low-Wage Earners, tries to discount the findings of numerous studies in recent years which have found that immigrants tend to complement rather than compete with native-born workers in the labor market, and that immigrant workers do not undermine wages for their native-born counterparts. FAIR pretends to refute these studies by misrepresenting their findings and their methodologies; creating caricatured “straw men” that can easily be knocked down. Behind that charade, however, a growing body of economic and demographic literature remains which demonstrates that immigrants do not “steal” jobs from natives, and do not create ruinous labor-market competition that drives down wages.
One of FAIR’s primary targets is a 2009 series of reports by Rob Paral & Associates, which found that unemployed natives and employed recent immigrants cannot simply be “swapped” for one another because they tend to have different levels of education, live in different parts of the country, have experience in different occupations, and have different levels of work experience in general. As a result, the reports found little apparent relationship between recent immigration and unemployment rates at the regional, state, or county level. FAIR distorts these findings, saying that Paral was claiming that immigrants and natives “do not compete for jobs.” In fact, Paral never says that. Rather, he concludes that “the substantially different characteristics of immigrant and native workers mean that the two populations are not simple substitutes for one another.”
FAIR also takes aim at studies by Giovanni Peri and Heidi Shierholz which have found that immigration results in a slight wage increase for native-born workers. This wage increase occurs in two ways. First, because immigrants and natives tend to have different levels of education, work in different occupations, and possess different skills, the jobs they perform are frequently interdependent and complementary. This increases the productivity of natives, which increases their wages. Second, the addition of immigrant workers to the labor force stimulates investment as new restaurants and stores open, new homes are built, etc. This increases the demand for labor, which exerts upward pressure on wages.
Shierholz found in a 2010 study that, from 1994 to 2007, immigration increased the wages of native-born workers by 0.4 percent. The amount of the wage gain varied slightly by the education level of the worker. College graduates got a boost of 0.4 percent; workers with some college 0.7 percent; high-school graduates 0.3 percent; and workers without a high-school diploma 0.3 percent. FAIR tries to dismiss the findings of this study and others like it by saying that they are based on the assumption that “immigrants and natives cannot substitute for one another.” But the wage studies don’t say that. They simply take account of the fact that there is “a small but detectable level of imperfect substitution between immigrant and native workers who have the same levels of education and experience.”
FAIR’s effort to discredit the studies it doesn’t like falls flat since it doesn’t address the actual methodologies and findings of the studies in question. At the end of the day, the fact remains that immigrants are not the cause of unemployment or low wages in the United States. And a growing body of empirical research demonstrates that there is no correlation between immigration and unemployment, and that immigration does not drive down wages for the native-born. Moreover, immigrants—even the unauthorized—create jobs through their purchasing power and their entrepreneurship, buying goods and services from U.S. businesses and establishing their own businesses, both of which sustain U.S. jobs. That’s not job stealing; that’s economic growth.
Photo by Steve Snodgrass.