Job Data Should Give Pause to Immigration Advocates

By Steven A. Camarota on February 20, 2005

Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 20, 2005

The recovery from the recession of 2001 is often described as "jobless." But this is not entirely correct. My analysis of Census Bureau data shows that between March 2000 and 2004, the number of adults working in United States actually increased.

What's interesting, however, is that all the net growth in jobs went to immigrant workers. In fact, while the number of unemployed adult native-born workers increased by 2.3 million over this time, the number of employed immigrants rose by 2.3 million.

Significantly, about half the growth in immigrant employment was from illegal immigration.

It would be a mistake to assume that each job taken by an immigrant is a job lost by a native. Still, such statistics should give pause to those who want to legalize illegal aliens and increase immigration still further.

Our analysis also shows that of the 900,000 net increase in jobs between March 2003 and 2004, two-thirds went to immigrant workers, even though they account for only 15 percent of all adult workers. At the same time, 1.2 million working-age natives left the labor force. Thus while native unemployment and withdrawal from the labor force increased, immigrants were making significant employment gains.

Our analysis also shows little evidence that immigrants only take jobs Americans don't want. It is true that immigration has its biggest impact at the bottom end of the labor market in relatively low-paying occupations done by less-educated workers.

Nonetheless such occupations still employ tens of millions of native-born workers.

In job categories such as construction labor, building maintenance and food preparation, where immigrant growth is the most pronounced, native unemployment also tends to be the highest. Immigration added 1.1 million workers to just these three occupations in the last four years, but there were nearly 2 million unemployed native-born Americans in these same occupations in 2004.

Unfortunately, both presidential candidates chose to ignore these facts during the recent election campaign. To the extent they even addressed the immigration question, both advocated legalizing illegal aliens and increasing legal immigration still further. President Bush continues to advocate such policies.

While public opinion polls generally show most Americans, including Hispanics, want less immigration, legal and illegal, those in positions of authority in this country generally sing the praises of mass immigration. One reason elites like immigration so much is that they do not face the job competition that lower-income Americans face. Only about 5 percent of lawyers and 6 percent of journalists are immigrants, compared with one-fourth of construction laborers and one-third of janitors. When more educated and affluent people say, "Immigrants only take jobs Americans don't want," what they really mean is that immigrants only take jobs they don't want.

When businesses say, "Immigrants only take jobs Americans don't want," what they really mean is that given what they would like to pay, and how they would like to treat their workers, they cannot find enough Americans. Therefore, employers want the government to continually increase the supply of labor by nonenforcement of immigration laws and keeping legal immigration levels as high as possible. This in turn holds down wages and benefits, especially at the bottom end of the labor market, as well as allowing them to put off investment that would increase productivity.

The idea that America is desperately short of less-skilled workers is absurd on its face. There are 70 million native-born Americans and legal immigrants already here between the ages of 18 and 64 who have only a high school education. This is an enormous pool of labor that if properly paid and treated could satisfy all the labor demands of American employers.

If we did enforce immigration laws and lowered the level of immigration, the reduction in the supply of labor would force employers to increase wages and to improve benefits and working conditions, especially for the lowest paid American workers -- native-born and legal immigrants. It would also force employers to invest in labor-saving devices and tec hniques.

Improving job opportunities for the poorest American workers and increasing the productivity of the economy are both sound public policy goals.

Reducing the level of legal and illegal immigration, now running at 1.5 million a year, would do both.

Steven A. Camarota is Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies.