Commentary | Wages, Incomes, and Wealth

Immigrants no danger to jobs in U.S.

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates. 


Immigrants no danger to jobs in U.S.

By  Jared Bernstein

As throngs of immigrants rally in scores of cities and Congress has to further debate an immigration bill, there still is one question that is not being considered.

Would natives have done much better had there been fewer immigrants in the job market? There’s no definitive way to know, but a hard look at the labor market suggests immigrant workers are not a threat to natives.

First, what’s changed in our job market over the past few years is not the growth of labor supply; it’s the lack of labor demand. Back in the late 1990s, immigrant inflows were larger than ever, yet we created enough jobs to absorb most of these workers, along with native job-seekers, and their wages and incomes grew significantly over these years. It’s no coincidence the debate over immigrant competition occurred at a much lower decibel level then.

In this decade, we’ve had the longest jobless recovery on record, followed by a job creation rate that’s tepid in historical terms. Were job creation occurring at the rate of the last recovery, we’d be averaging 300,000 jobs per month instead of 200,000. That difference of 1.2 million jobs per year would make a huge difference in terms of providing enough slots for all job-seekers.

Second, in some parts of the country, immigrants dominate occupations to the extent that they’re more likely to compete with each other than with native workers. For example, immigrants account for about half of non-managers in construction in New York and Washington. Moreover, the fact construction was one of the few industries to boom over the past five years is one reason immigrants’ net job gains have outpaced those of natives. Again, the role of labor demand and job creation is an overlooked determinant of outcomes in this debate.

Third, one area where there does appear to be some crowding out in recent years of native workers by immigrants is among high school dropouts. But there are mitigating factors to consider here as well. As would be expected in an advanced economy like ours, high school dropouts are a small and shrinking share of our workforce (11 percent of the adult workforce last year), and immigrants are a fast-growing share of this disadvantaged group, while the native share is contracting.

Basically, if you’re a native worker without a high school diploma, you face tremendous barriers in the job market, of which immigrant competition is only one. As the New York Times reported recently, 72 percent of young, black, male high school dropouts are incarcerated or jobless. But does anyone really think that were immigrant competition to let up significantly, their fate would be significantly altered?

Natives and immigrants alike reasonably worry about the ability of our job market to absorb seemingly endless flows of new workers. And all of us should question Congress’s rationale for adding hundreds of thousands of new temporary work visas as part of immigration reform.

But for all 140 million people in our job market, immigrant and native-born alike, the most important missing ingredient right now is a much more balanced economy, one where overall growth lifts the rowboats as well as the yachts, regardless of from which shore they hail.

Jared Bernstein is senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.


See related work on Income and wages | Wages, Incomes, and Wealth

See more work by Jared Bernstein