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The Economics of Immigration Are Not What You Think
Waves of new immigrants often spark economic anxiety and cultural discomfort, as well as occasional violence and wide-net crackdowns, on the Arizona model. Even here, a nation comprised almost entirely of immigrants and their descendents, we’ve seen these reactions not only in recent times but also a century ago, when waves of poor immigrants from Europe arrived here. With a hundred years’ distance, however, we can now see that those early waves of immigration were generally associated not with economic dislocation and national decline, but with extraordinary economic boom times and America’s emergence as the world’s leading economy. And for much the same reasons as a century ago, recent evidence indicates that the economic effects of the current waves of immigration are also largely positive.
The New Policy Institute (NPI) asked me to review all of the available data and economic studies of recent U.S. immigration. With my colleague Jiwon Vellucci, we found, to start, that more than one-third of recent immigrants come from Europe and Asia, while less than 57 percent have come from Mexico and other Latin American nations. The popular portrait of recent immigrants is off-point in other respects as well. While more immigrants than native-born Americans lack high school diplomas, equivalent shares of both groups have college or post-college degrees. That finding should make it unsurprising that 28 percent of U.S. immigrants work as managers or professionals, including 38 percent of those who have become naturalized citizens or the same share as native-born Americans.
Many Americans would probably acknowledge that their concerns about immigration lie principally with those who are undocumented. No one likes being reminded that the world’s most powerful nation hasn’t figured out how to effectively police its own borders. But the data also show that these undocumented people, who account for 30 percent of all recent immigrants, embody some traditional values much more than native-born Americans. For example, while undocumented male immigrants are generally low-skilled, they also have the country’s highest labor participation rate: Among working-age men, 94 percent of undocumented immigrants work or actively are seeking work, compared to 83 percent of the native born. One critical reason is that undocumented immigrants are more likely to support traditional families with children: 47 percent of undocumented immigrants today are part of couples with children, compared to just 21 percent of native-born Americans.
The evidence regarding the impact of immigration on wages also turns up some surprising results. First, there’s simply no evidence that the recent waves of immigration have slowed the wage progress of average, native-born American workers. Overall, in fact, the studies show that immigration has increased the average wage of Americans modestly in the short-run, and by more over the long-term as capital investment rises to take account of the larger number of workers. Behind those results, however, lie winners and losers – although in both cases, the effects are modest. Among workers, the winners are generally higher-skilled Americans: For example, when a factory or hotel hires more low-skilled workers, demand also increases for the higher-skilled people who manage those workers or carry out other professional tasks for an enterprise that’s grown larger.
The losers are generally the lower-skilled workers who have to compete for jobs with recent immigrants. But studies also show that immigration reform might well take care of most of those effects. Following the 1986 immigration reforms, for example, previously-undocumented immigrants experienced big pay boosts – as much as 15 or 20 percent – and immigrants who already had legal status saw hefty wage gains, too. But the reforms also led to higher wages for lower-skilled native-born Americans. One reason is that undocumented people who gain legal status can move more freely to places with greater demand for their skills, reducing their competition with native-born people with similar skills. More important, their new legal status confers certain protections such as minimum wage and overtime rules. Today, about one-fourth of low-skilled workers in large American cities are paid less than the minimum wage, including 16 percent of native-born workers, 26 percent of legal immigrants, and 38 percent of undocumented workers. Ending the ability of unscrupulous employers to recruit people to work for less than the minimum wage would not only raise the incomes of those currently paid less than the minimum wage. It also would ease downward pressures on the wages of other lower-skilled Americans, which comes from the below-minimum wage workers. This process is something we have refered to as "closing the 'trap-door' under the minimum wage."
Looking again at immigrants generally, recent research also shows a strong entrepreneurial streak, with immigrants being 30 percent more likely than native-born Americans to start their own businesses. Nor are immigrants the fiscal drain that’s commonly supposed, at least not in the long term. In California and a few other states, immigrants today do entail a net, fiscal burden, principally reflecting the costs of public education for their children. But studies that use dynamic models to take account of the lifetime earnings of immigrants – most of whom arrive here post-school age and without elderly parents to claim Social Security and Medicare – show substantial net fiscal gains at the federal, state, and local levels.
Political disputes are rarely settled by facts. Nevertheless, it’s reassuring to see that the humane and progressive approach to immigration is also a policy likely to produce good economic results for almost everyone.
For more information, please read: The Impact of Immigration and Immigration Reform on the Wages of American Workers by Robert J. Shapiro and Jiwon Vellucci.