Panel Transcript: Overcrowded Housing Among Immigrant and Native-Born Workers

By Mark Krikorian, Steven A. Camarota, and Peter Skerry on October 9, 2020


Press Release

Panel Video

Facebook Live Stream

YouTube Live Stream

Twitter Stream


Overcrowded Housing Among Immigrant and Native-Born Workers

Event Summary

The Center for Immigration Studies hosted a panel on October 8th to discuss the Center's new report, Overcrowded Housing Among Immigrant and Native-Born Workers.


Mark Krikorian
Executive Director
Center for Immigration Studies

Steven A. Camarota
Director of Research
Center for Immigration Studies

Peter Skerry
Professor of Political Science
Boston College

MARK KRIKORIAN: Good morning. My name is Mark Krikorian. I’m executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank here in Washington. And we are sponsoring an event today that you can either watch now – you’re already watching it – or later at That’s our website. We’re on Twitter at @CIS_org.

And the COVID-19 epidemic is not the first illness to be spread by people in close proximity breathing on each other, nor will it be the last. There’s been significant speculation in the press and elsewhere about the prevalence of this illness among – especially among essential workers and immigrant workers in particular, but it’s all been speculation. There really hasn’t been anything substantive or data-based in these discussions. And so what we decided to do was actually look at the numbers – look at the issue of overcrowding and what relation, if any, it has to the spread of COVID, and whether there’s an immigration aspect, an immigration angle to this issue. And so to address that we’re releasing a paper today and having this discussion about it.

The first speaker about the paper is going to be one of the authors, Steven Camarota, who is the director of research here at the Center for Immigration Studies. He’s going to go over the findings of the paper. And then we’re going to have some discussion with Peter Skerry, political science professor at Boston College, who’s written on various aspects of immigration over the years. And then we’re going to have some questions and some back and forth.

So first we’re going to start with Steve talking about his findings related to overcrowding and immigration and possible relation that has to COVID and other similar illnesses. So, Steve?

STEVEN CAMAROTA: Thank you, Mark.

As Mark said, the report that we are releasing today examines specifically the incidence of overcrowding among immigrant and native-born workers – overcrowding, that is, in terms of residential housing. As Mark also said, the report was written by myself and Karen Zeigler, who is also here at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Now, overcrowding is an important issue for a number of reasons, but the most relevant question right now is as it relates to the current pandemic. There actually is a very large body of research, a lot of it done in the United States, looking at the relationship between overcrowded housing and the spread of respiratory communicable disease like COVID. And that research, not surprisingly, finds a very strong link between the two.

Now, the standard definition in the United States of overcrowded housing is that there’s more than one person per room in your housing unit, excluding things like hallways, porches, balconies, bathrooms. There’s various specific data gathered in that way. So there’s a pretty well-established way of looking at overcrowded housing, but one could think of a different definition.

Now, in addition to all the prior research looking at things like TB or the seasonal flu and overcrowded housing, there’s some new research looking at specifically COVID-19 that also finds a link between crowding and the spread of the disease. Let me give you just – let me quote from one. One of these newer studies came from the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts, and that study concluded that overcrowding housing was “the most indicative measure of COVID-19 spread” – that’s their words – that they found looking across communities.

I also should point out there’s a new blog posting on our website that looks at the correlation between overcrowded housing and the incidence of COVID-19 infection across the nation’s counties. And again we find a pretty reasonably strong relationship, consistent with prior analysis, between the spread of COVID-19 and the incidence or the concentration of overcrowded housing.

Now, of course, none of this should be surprising. Living in close proximity to others, obviously, makes it more likely that communicable disease will spread. And if someone becomes sick, if the household is crowded it makes it harder to isolate someone. So again, it’s not just the research but kind of common sense which suggests that crowding is likely to facilitate the spread of respiratory infections.

Now, our analysis is based on the 2018 American Community Survey collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. And again, we use that standard definition of overcrowding. We looked specifically at immigrant and native-born workers. In the survey, immigrants – or the foreign-born, as the Census Bureau refers to them – are all people who are not U.S. citizens at birth. And it includes people on green cards, it includes naturalized citizens, and it includes some number of illegal immigrants, and we’ll discuss that. In general, the survey is assumed to capture most illegal immigrants. What is certain is that a large number are in the survey, and later on in our analysis we do try to break them out separately. But for the most part, we look just at immigrants overall.

Now, when looking at immigrant workers, we find that immigrant workers are about four times more likely overall to live in overcrowded housing. It’s about 3.5 percent for the native-born, but 14.3 percent for immigrants. As a result, immigrants account for nearly half of all workers in America living in overcrowded housing. I know that number seems hard to believe, but it is almost half, 46 percent. Even though immigrants themselves are only 17 percent of all workers, they just make up an enormous share of all overcrowded workers.

Now, to be sure, many factors having nothing to do with overcrowding or immigration have contributed to the United – in the United States to the spread of COVID-19. Nevertheless, as I will show, the evidence indicates that – as I’ve already said, actually – the overcrowding facilitates the spread of COVID-19 and immigration has added enormously to overcrowding.

There are consequences, of course, and we see this often when it comes to overcrowding when we look at specific sectors of the economy. There have been a number of shutdowns at warehouses and order-processing facilities, including those run by Amazon and Walmart, because workers in these facilities have gotten sick. In just May and June, the CDC reported that 111 meat- and poultry-processing facilities had significant outbreaks of COVID-19, and 24 of them had to be shut down at least temporarily.

Now, a significant share of workers employed in low-wage jobs – many of which are considered essential during the COVID epidemic – live in overcrowded housing, and immigrants account in many cases for a majority of workers living in overcrowded housing. They don’t necessarily account for a majority of workers in this sector, but they do account for a majority in many cases of workers living in overcrowded housing.

For example, take the job category of butcher and meat processor. So these are – a lot of these people work in these facilities that slaughter and cut up meat. It is one of the areas where overcrowding is quite common. In 2018, 24 percent of immigrant butchers and meat processors lived in overcrowded housing. Now, the comparable figure for native-born workers doing that same work was 6 percent. Now, because immigrants who do this kind of work are so much more likely to live in crowded housing, they account for one-third of all the butchers and meat processors overall, but they account for about two-thirds of all those who live in overcrowded housing. So that would be a good example of a sector where immigration and immigrant workers make up an enormous fraction of the overcrowded problem.

Let’s look at one other, and I won’t bore with too many statistics. The report is replete with those. But if we look at packers and packagers – these are – a lot of these people do things like work in warehouses – we find that 24 percent of immigrants in that occupation live in overcrowded housing compared to 8 percent of native-born workers who do that same work. As a result, immigrants are 41 percent of packers and packagers – so they’re a big percent – but they’re 68 percent of packagers (sic; packers) and packagers who live in crowded housing. So again, a disproportional percent of people employed in that occupation who live in crowded housing are immigrants because the immigrants are so much more likely to be in overcrowded housing to begin with.

Now, the bottom line is that immigration, of course, has added enormously to overcrowded housing in a number of sectors, including production, health care, support, transportation, moving, food preparation, sales, and farming. And again, many of these occupations are both low-wage and thought to be essential during the COVID-19 epidemic.

Now, the high rate among immigrant workers overall or in specific occupations must not be thought of as some kind of moral failing on their part. Rather, it partly reflects the fact that immigrants, especially overall, are employed in these low-wage jobs, and they are also more likely to live in urban areas where cost of living is higher and overcrowding is more common. And another contributing factor is immigrants tend to live in larger families. We have a lot of statistics on that in the report, but on average immigrant families are larger than native-born families, and so are their households, and also a larger fraction live in large households.

But interestingly – and I think this is one of our most important findings – even when immigrants earn the same wage as the native-born, live in the same size household, and reside in an area with the same population density as the native-born, they are still much more likely to live in overcrowded housing than comparable natives; that is, natives who live in those same circumstances, earn the same wage, and so forth.

Just to give you one example – I won’t bore you; there’s a lot – 35 percent of immigrant workers who live in an urban area have five members in their household and earn $10 an hour or less live in overcrowded housing. So that’s 35 percent. Of natives who have – live in the same conditions, 16 percent live in overcrowded housing. And the same pattern holds even as we move up the income distribution. Higher-income immigrants are still much more likely to live in overcrowded housing than high-income or higher-income native-born workers, even when you control for household size and whether the person lives in an urban area.

So why is this? Well, I don’t know that we have a clear answer, but I think it’s very likely that cultural preferences play a significant role in explaining why both legal and illegal immigrants are more likely to live in crowded housing than native-born workers, even those that are comparable. A large share of immigrants come from developing countries, where houses are typically much smaller than in the United States. So it should not be too surprising if many of them choose or have a different perspective about personal space, with many choosing to live in more moderately-sized homes even when they might be able to afford something larger. It makes sense.

Also, immigrants’ desire to save money on housing and perhaps send money home may also help explain why immigrants, even higher-income immigrants, are much more likely to live in overcrowding housing than higher-income natives with the same household size, and so forth. In case you’re wondering, the estimate for sending money home is about $68 billion, so that’s a lot of money. And prior research indicates it’s mostly sent home by immigrants, and so that could represent a significant share of their income. So living in more modest homes might be a way of saving and doing that, so that might be another reason.

Now something else. Since the data we used included illegal and legal immigrants, it could be that it is just the illegal immigrants that live in overcrowded housing and they have the high rates of it, and that’s really what explains that overall picture for the native-born. But when we try to separate out legal and illegal immigrants, we don’t really find that that’s the case. Based on the Census Bureau data that we used, we estimated that illegal immigrants, consistent with other work, is about – they are about 4 percent of all workers in America and they make up 16 percent of all workers in overcrowded housing. So, yes, their rates are high and they are disproportionately in overcrowded housing. That’s for sure.

But we also estimated that legal immigrant workers, who are much more numerous, are 13 percent of all workers but 30 percent of workers in overcrowded housing. In other words, legal immigrants by themselves are approaching one-third of all the overcrowded housing – or workers living in overcrowded housing, even though they’re only about 13 percent of all workers. So even if there was no illegal immigration to the United States, legal immigration by itself would still have added significantly to the overcrowding problem.

Now, it should also be added that while overcrowding is more common among people who are new arrivals – that was another thing that we examined. We were trying to figure out if maybe it’s really just something that people go through as a temporary phase. But it does not appear that the problem is simply among newcomers. Of immigrant workers who have lived in the United States for 10 or more years, 13.4 percent lived in overcrowded housing in 2018 based on the Census data. This compares to 14.3 percent for all immigrant workers.

So, yes, overcrowding declines over time, presumably as immigrants become more prosperous and earn higher wages, but then other things might tend to cancel that out. More relatives might join them over time. They may have additions to their family through having children. And so the difference between new – established immigrants, people here for more than 10 years, and immigrants overall in overcrowding rates actually turns out to not be that different. In short, overcrowding is not just an issue for the newly arrived.

Now, all of that having been said, it is still the case that overcrowding among both immigrants and natives declines significantly with higher wages, and that is especially true of immigrants. Though, again, they’re more likely to be overcrowded at every wage level, and even when you throw in family size and where they live it’s still the case that they’re more likely to be overcrowded, it’s still the case higher wages is associated with lower rates of overcrowding.

Therefore, paying higher wages to workers would almost certainly help reduce overcrowding, especially those at the bottom end of the labor market where overcrowding tends to be more common. More than half of all workers who live in overcrowded conditions earn less than $15 an hour, or $15 an hour and less I should say. So it is something that is much more prevalent among people at the bottom.

So if you want to increase wages to hopefully alleviate some of the overcrowding, reducing the flow of immigrants in the country would not only directly reduce overcrowding over time by avoiding adding to it, it would also help reduce crowding indirectly by putting upward pressure on wages. Now, of course, employers across multiple sectors have argued for decades that there are not enough workers, particularly in low-wage jobs. However, I would just add this. It’s a bit of a digression, but I’ll say this: If workers really were in such short supply, then we would expect to find that wages would be rising very rapidly. But in general, and certainly not at the bottom end of the labor market, that has not been happening for most workers. There’s a large body of research on that.

I would also add, if anyone’s interested, that the majority of workers in just about every low-wage, lower-status job, from meat packer to janitor to construction laborer to home health-care aide, was born in the United States. So the notion that with higher wages we wouldn’t be able to attract any Americans to these jobs doesn’t make sense. After all, the majority – in many cases, an overwhelming majority – of the people who do this kind of work were born in the United States.

Now, to be sure, keeping wages low can create benefits for both employers and consumers. But keeping wages down by adding large numbers of immigrant workers almost certainly affects the livelihood of the least-educated and poorest Americans, both immigrant and native-born, and it also creates other issues. And most important for the current discussion, it adds enormously to overcrowded housing.

Now, in conclusion, I will say this. Once more data becomes available and the disease has run its course, researchers will be better able to determine the complex relationships between all the variables that contributed to the spread of COVID-19. However, it seems certain that overcrowding is one of the factors facilitating the spread of the disease, just as it does other similar infections. Of course, it would be wrong to think that overcrowding and the immigration that contributes to it are the only reason that the United States has done worse than many other industrialized countries in dealing with COVID. That is clearly not the case. That said, it seems almost certain that overcrowding has played a significant role in spreading the disease, and it is very unlikely that we continue to allow in large numbers of immigrants and not add significantly to the overcrowded problem.

But I would add that if we want to raise wages, reducing immigration is not the only thing we need to be thinking about. For example, raising the minimum wage, perhaps strengthening unions, or perhaps increasing income transfers like the earned income tax credit for workers and the additional child tax credit, the refundable portion – it’s a cash payment to low-wage people, typically workers, and so is the earned income tax credit. These things, as well, might make housing more affordable for low-wage workers.

But immigration does seem to be playing a very large role in adding directly to the problem of overcrowding and in likely keeping down wages at the bottom end. So at the very least, policymakers need to consider the impact of immigration if we want to reduce our vulnerability to future pandemics. Thank you.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Steve.

And now, for some comments, thoughts about the report, reaction to it, and also some sort of more general observations, we’re going to Peter Skerry, a professor of political science at Boston College. And, Peter, take it away.

PETER SKERRY: All right. Thank you, Mark. And thank you, Steve. It’s a pleasure to join you here today.

I would begin by congratulating Steve and CIS for what I would consider a rather extraordinarily evenhanded piece of research on a problem that has arguably not gotten as much attention as it might because it deals with sensitive topics. As someone who’s spent a fair piece of my career in Washington at various think tanks, including Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute, I’m certainly familiar with the problems of policy research and advocacy research, and certainly mindful that in recent years those two different kinds of research have more and more overlapped, and regrettably watched that trend. And certainly, today we’re in an era where it’s hard to read anything in academic journals, journals of opinion, and certainly in newspapers where purported experts and specialists obviously indulge their biases and their predilections. It’s become endemic in all parts of the political spectrum.

So when I read something from an advocacy organization that’s clearly been preoccupied for a long time with reducing overall levels of immigration; and read a report like this that, one, picks up and points to a problem that has been neglected and that is potentially politically loaded, and then does it in an extraordinarily evenhanded and fair-minded way, looking at possible alternative explanations and being very careful to – and precise about what it’s – what it’s arguing, what it does know, and what it does purport to find out and what it does not purport to find out; I am struck very, very, very strongly and positively. So I congratulate Steve and his colleagues at the Center for Immigration Studies. And I think he made that clear, his perspective, not only in his report but in his remarks right now just preceding mine.

Now, what I would turn to is to point out some of the implications of what Steve and his colleague have reported on, and to emphasize and to draw attention to the fact that they have primarily looked at the long-term implications, and the long-term policy implications especially, of their findings. Not surprisingly, given CIS’s long involvement in immigration policy discussions and debates, and being concerned with the impacts – the unacknowledged, unrecognized, or ignored impacts – of historically high levels of immigration into the United States, the first – among the first implications that Steve and his colleague point to is, of course, the possibly – indeed, the desirability, from their point of view, I think it’s fair to say – to limit overall immigration levels. But that’s not the only thing they suggest. As Steve just got through mentioning and I’m eager to underscore, he and his colleague also talk about the possibility of raising minimum wage levels or earned income tax credits and other such redistributive schemes that have proved relatively popular and relatively successful; or, a much more controversial notion and topic, promoting unionization among workers, including immigrant workers. And I think that’s worthy of note. That’s a full array of possibilities and policy options that CIS is urging its readers to consider in response to this particular problem.

What I would add, though – and I think perhaps this particular study and its proposal is less specific on and perhaps neglects a bit – are the more short-term implications of the immigrant-related overcrowding and its impact on COVID-19 that it draws our attention to. By short-term implications, I would, first of all – and here they do mention this and they stress it – that immigrants should not be culpable in this regard. They should not be stigmatized. They should not be deemed guilty of committing or doing anything. This report, this study, recognizes that this is a complicated social and economic phenomenon that is one of the outcomes of our prevailing immigration policy, but there’s not a hint here of immigrants being stigmatized or the notion that they ought to be stigmatized or blamed for these complicated structural and indeed to some extent cultural problems, as the report also points out.

In that spirit, one might also talk about – although the report does not specifically mention this – the need for special outreach programs to immigrant communities. That certainly would be one short-term implication of the findings of this – of this study. There are – there are others, obviously. But it’s that dimension, that aspect of our current situation that I think the authors could – might have spent a bit more time focusing on. But I think that’s a relatively mild criticism in the broader context of the care and the thoroughness with which these two investigators have explored this problem, especially, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, at a time when these issues are so charged and our environment is so charged.

Again, this is a remarkable piece of research on a very difficult public-policy problem – not just the fact that it’s COVID-19, which itself is obviously rather controversial, but the connection between immigrants and the spread of COVID-19 is I daresay a topic that has been avoided in most contexts because it is so charged. So once again, I congratulate and express my admiration for the evenhandedness and the discipline of these two researchers, who have produced what I consider an important and enlightening and positive contribution to an important public-policy issue. And I’ll stop there, OK?

MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. Thank you, Peter.

Since I’m paying for the mics, I’ll take the first question and direct it to Steve. And then maybe after Steve gives his answer, we’ll see if Peter has some thoughts on it too. But I mean, I have – we’ve gotten several questions here, and one of them that I’m not sure – I mean, it doesn’t relate directly to the – to the data in the study, but it – but it might explain some of it.

Steve, you had said that perhaps part of it is just a preference for denser living, as it were, because of, you know, housing patterns and what have you in the sending countries. But is there an aspect here of especially more recent immigrants simply choosing to spend their money in different ways? And what I mean by that is choosing to send money home to grandma rather than spending it on, say, somewhat higher rent to get, you know, an apartment that has an extra room in it or something like that. Do you see what I mean, Steve?

MR. CAMAROTA: Yeah, yeah. And we do mention that in the report. As I indicated, about $68 billion – the latest World Bank figures – come from the United States in the form of what’s typically referred to as remittances. And those remittances typically, as far as we can tell from the best research, come from immigrants. Ninety percent plus do, so it’s mostly immigrants who send money home. Some native-born people send money out of the country as well, but it’s overwhelmingly done by immigrants. And that strongly suggests that that might be a motive to save money on housing, or perhaps there are other things. Maybe immigrants would prefer to invest money in their children’s education, and so save money on housing in a way that native-born people don’t, and perhaps there are other items that they would rather have.

So, again, it must be emphasized that the – that low-income immigrants – we also have a whole analysis where we look at people in poverty or people who live near poverty. And since immigrants are more likely to fall under those categories and those categories are more likely to be overcrowded, that likely does have an impact as well.

But what Mark’s really asking is: Why do immigrants who are nowhere near poverty – immigrants who make, say $35 an hour or more – why are they about as likely to live in overcrowded housing as natives who make about $15 an hour? That isn’t so easy to explain, and I think it has something to do with these things we’ve been talking about – different perspective on houses, different ideas and attitudes. And so – which make perfect sense, I think. And also this idea of maybe sending money home or maybe spending money on other things, as well. And that, I think, likely explains or contributes to it as well.

So I think there are a lot of factors there. And this data isn’t very good at getting at that, but certainly that’s another area to consider in the future for more research.

(TECHNICAL ISSUE) MR. KRIKORIAN: I’m going to – I’m going to ask – I was going to ask Steve another question here, and this kind of relates to the issue of housing as well. But do – is there a role – your data doesn’t, obviously, get this. It’s just simply numbers collected by the, you know, government surveys. But is there potentially a role in zoning and that kind of enforcement – but you know, housing occupancy rules in reducing crowding among anybody, I mean immigrants or the native-born? In other words – because there are rules on this different communities have. You can only have X number of unrelated people living together in the same home, that kind of thing. They are often not enforced very well or sometimes enforced at all. And so my question, Steve, is: Is there potentially a role not just for immigration policy, but this in a sense for kind of local, you know, standard kind of regular enforcement of these kind of occupancy rules?

MR. CAMAROTA: Yeah. I’d say there’s a real challenge here because one of the analyses we do, which I didn’t talk about, is we try to look at what fraction of people in these – in overcrowded households or immigrant and native households in general – or I should say where immigrant and native workers are and what kind of households they’re in in which they’re unrelated to, say, the household head, a very quick and easy way to look at that question. And the short answer is, you know, the vast majority of these workers are related to the household head.

You know, there’s this stereotype of immigrants living in housing that is – that is crowded with a bunch of unrelated workers all trying to save money, you know, sleeping on cots kind of thing. That is just not what the data show. The data show that the vast majority of immigrant households overall and the vast majority of even overcrowded households are generally all people who are related. Now, they might have more distant relatives, but in general it is not the case that immigrants are living in a situation where they’re all a lot of unrelated people. That happens. In fact, the highest percentage of any occupation we could find among immigrants, I recall – and I’m doing this from memory – was among meat and poultry processors and butchers, and I think it was like 16 percent of the workers were unrelated to the household head – which is not a perfect measure, but a pretty good indication that these are mostly families; maybe extended families, but mostly families.

And so if you try to enforce zoning and housing regulations, A, I don’t think it would have that much effect. And the other concern I have with that approach is it might not be very sensitive to the unique situation of immigrants and how they live their lives in – and how they tend to have bigger families and so forth. So I’m not sure we could do all that much with that.

And again, it must be emphasized it’s not a bunch of unrelated people, as far as we could tell – but maybe that’s an area for more analysis – but as far as we could tell, of unrelated people living together. That’s not what’s going on here. It’s mostly related people. It’s mostly families, and regulation can’t deal with that anyway.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, good. Thank you. That’s actually – that’s interesting. In other words, it’s not an issue of, you know, 16 guys rotating on mattresses or anything like that.


MR. KRIKORIAN: This is – that does happen, but it’s a relatively small part of this – of this phenomenon.


MR. KRIKORIAN: Steve, there’s – one of the things that happens is that we see a lot of COVID – there are hotspots in various outlier counties that don’t really have a lot of immigration; in other words, where immigration clearly doesn’t really seem to play much of a role in the spread of the virus in those places. I mean, does that underline the fact that, obviously, this is a contributing aspect in some cases, but not really what’s driving the issue?

MR. CAMAROTA: Well, I would say this. When you look at some of those outlying counties, which we did with a county-by-county analysis – which was very brief, I should point out – they’re often unusual places. Some outlying counties either have a prison, a long-term care facility of some kind, or large jail or detention facility, not – so far as I can tell, not associated with immigration, just in general. Or some of these more rural outlying areas have some kind of facility, typically meat and poultry processing, and that does seem to be playing a role.

There is another type of outlying county also, and that is some – and you see this in the Dakotas and you also see this in Alaska – Indian reservations. It is very common on Indian reservations. Although they’re typically – these big ones are rural or generally rural, there is also a high incidence of overcrowding.

So I would say that there is also – I should point out we do an analysis in the report looking by population density. And it is true that in rural areas there is more overcrowding than in some more, like, suburban areas, not relative to densely-populated areas. And that can reflect, often, the fact that farming, and meat and poultry, and fish processing often take place in rural areas, and these facilities, as I indicated – also warehouses, even – have had a lot of outbreaks. And so that may help account for that.

However, when we look at immigrants and natives who live in rural areas, the difference between the two groups remains extremely large. In other words, immigrants who live in rural areas, just like immigrants who live in urban areas, are dramatically more likely to live in overcrowded housing than are native-born workers who live in rural areas or urban areas.

Now, having said all that, it is absolutely essential to again emphasize that it would definitely be a mistake to think that overcrowding or the immigration that contributes to it is even the most important reason for the spread of COVID-19. When we think about why the United States has done worse than many other industrialized countries, it’s not at all clear that it has – it’s overcrowding. What is clear is that prior research and some new research says overcrowding does play a role. The fact that it’s not by any means the only factor doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant, and it looks like maybe it’s important even in rural and urban areas and areas in between.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Let’s try one more time for Peter to get his thoughts in. Go ahead, Peter. Sorry about that.

MR. SKERRY: That’s OK. Can you hear me now?

MR. KRIKORIAN: Yes. Yeah, I can hear you. Go ahead.

MR. SKERRY: OK. Well, I think an overall point that I would – I would make, that goes back to your original point but it covers the waterfront in some ways, is that what I think is intriguing about this from a public-policy and a political point of view is that the drivers of overcrowding among immigrants, whatever the specific and detailed causal components are – and I think Steve and his colleague have done a good job of laying out the alternatives and which ones seem to be the most critical – the fact is that it seems to me that immigrants are – immigrants are making choices that are – that we – that most of us would regard as positive choices in the sense that they’re very concerned about their relatives. They open their houses up to relatives – not just relatives, but they’re – that they have a strong sense of obligation and duty to their – to their friends and relatives. And I think that has to be, most obviously, connected to this overcrowding dynamic.

But like so many things in social policy, actions that are driven by positive motives may have negative outcomes – negative health outcomes in this case – which, again, is – it’s important to underline that. So many of our discussions and debates about immigration and immigration policy either romanticizes immigrants and what – and their motives and their culture, or it demonizes them. But the obvious reality for immigrants and for the rest of us is that often our own positive drives and emotions vis-à-vis our children, for example, might have obvious negative consequences for somebody else’s children. If I take a spot in a – in an – you know, a very sought-after school for my kids, well, I may be depriving somebody else whose kids might in some other sense deserve to be there more. But that is a difficult tradeoff that we always encounter in social issues and social policy. And I think that’s an interesting implication of what Steve is pointing to, that these are – these are troubling outcomes often, I think, driven by positive motives.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. And that kind of underlines the basic point, really, I think of a lot of CIS’s work, is that this isn’t about immigrants as people; it’s about immigration as a policy.


MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. And one question maybe for both of you. I mean, whoever wants to weigh in on this. One of the – what we’ve seen from CBP, which is the agency that oversees the Border Patrol and what have you, is that they’re suggesting that one of the things they’ve seen is illegal immigrants who have come across the border – and there still has been some flow, even though it’s lower than it was, you know, a year ago – are more likely to be – to have the virus and then settle in immigrant communities in the United States, and thus spread the virus that way, using that as kind of part of the rationale for the more extraordinary border-control measures we’ve seen. Does, I mean, either one of you have any thoughts on that as to whether it’s – first of all, whether you have a sense whether it’s true or not, but also, you know, what are the possible implications of that? Either one of you wants to take that?

MR. SKERRY: I defer to Steve in the first instance and I’ll ponder it.

MR. CAMAROTA: I don’t know about what is the incidence of COVID among people crossing, but it’s an important question. It’s certainly true that since immigrants, especially coming in or newly arriving or maybe even returning, are much – are pretty likely to live with other immigrants, and since the analysis indicates that immigrants – workers, anyway – live often in an – in an overcrowded residential setting, that would mean that someone coming in with it is going to be – even more easily spread the disease, given the way these houses are laid out.

So I guess that would be a definite concern. In other words, if someone’s arriving in the United States and goes to an area where there’s more overcrowding, then that – and they have the disease – then that probably is going to make the situation even worse. So that’s a concern. And in a different way, keeping out people who have COVID-19 infections until at least their infection’s over is probably very helpful to immigrant communities because they’re uniquely vulnerable to these diseases because of the housing settlement patterns.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Any thoughts on that, Peter?

MR. SKERRY: Yeah. Yeah. Again, from a somewhat maybe broader angle – and a point that I think is probably obvious, but like a lot of things in this – in the immigration policy area the obvious often gets excluded or overlooked – which is that one of the things I’ve been struck by, especially teaching as I do especially undergraduates at Boston College, the rhetoric that one has heard – and it’s not rhetoric in a pejorative sense; it’s just sort of the articulated assumptions that people, you know, come out with that doesn’t – that don’t reflect much thought, but they’re just assumed to be correct – that kind of rhetoric of always questioning borders, you know, being skeptical of the need for control of borders, that we live in a borderless world and that’s, you know, the state of affairs, and that’s even in fact desirable, well, suddenly in the last six, seven, eight months that’s clearly been brought up short and undermined. I haven’t heard too many people complaining in Europe about the efforts of member countries of the European Union controlling their borders. It’s obvious that they need to do that in the context of something like this pandemic.

And in the same way, while there’s been a lot of dispute about the Trump administration’s handling of borders generally, I mean, the notion that we need to monitor who comes into this country across our Mexican border is rather straightforward and obvious. Now, how it gets done and with what kinds of care and empathy, all those kinds of issues get drawn in, and I understand. But the basic logic of the need to control our borders, we’ve had a – we’ve had a healthy wakeup call, and I think that’s worth noting.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Good. Thanks.

Let me just take one more question because we want to respect everybody’s time. But among the things that Steve and his co-author referred to – and then you underlined as well, Peter – was things like maybe increasing the minimum wage or increasing EITC or that sort of thing; in other words, government policy measures designed, hopefully, to increase the income, the earnings of people at the bottom, immigrants and natives. It wouldn’t just be immigrants, obviously. But the question here with regard to immigration policy is that some significant portion – not all of it, but a significant portion of this phenomenon that we’re talking about relates to illegal immigrants, and the – whether it’s minimum wage or EITC, whatever, is going to be less relevant to them. It’s not – I mean, there are, in fact, illegal immigrants who file taxes and minimum wages do have some effect on what illegal immigrants are paid, but it’s more indirect. And so the question I would throw out is: Are these kind of interventions by the government related to increasing earnings likely to be less effective than we might hope precisely because a significant portion of the target population we would be trying to help are, in fact, illegal immigrants? Either one of you want to take that?

MR. CAMAROTA: Well, I mean, I’ll just say this. If you raise the minimum wage, there’s no reason you wouldn’t say it counts for everyone, right? You could say that it doesn’t matter your legal status. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to enforce the law, but employers can’t use your illegality as an excuse to pay you less. So that might be one of the more effective ways. You’re right, if you give out payments – cash payments, if that were your option – then, you know, you’re going to – obviously, it’s not likely to go to illegals, though in a Democratic administration and so forth it might. And in fact, there’s evidence that the additional child tax credit is often received by illegals. I won’t go into the details, but it has to do with the way the IRS interpreted the regulations. So, you know, there’s that as well.

But your overall question of illegality, yeah, that does matter. But as I tried to indicate – I’ll summarize quickly – about two-thirds of all the immigrant workers who live in overcrowded condition(s) are legal immigrants, so anything that would apply to legal immigrants would have a very big effect. Immigrants – legal immigrants are about one-third of all the workers in America who live in overcrowded housing. And if you focus just, again, on immigrants, then immigrants are about two-thirds. So most immigrants who live in overcrowded are legal, and that makes sense. Legal immigrants are much more numerous than illegal immigrants. So, yes, it’s true that illegal immigrants would – might be left out if you did income transfers, but a minimum wage should benefit them as well.

I should point out that when you drill down into the data at least that we had, and assuming that we were successfully – and all we did was base our analysis on the work of others – if we successfully identified the illegal immigrants, it does not look like they make dramatically less than the native-born working at the same job, which isn’t too surprising because they’re doing the same work. They probably make about the same wages. So in that sense it doesn’t look like immigrants, even illegal immigrants, work for dramatically less.

The reason illegal immigrants make a lot less on average overall is that they’re much less skilled. They only have 11 years of schooling on average. A large fraction, as far as we could tell, report that they don’t speak English well. And these are big hinderance(s) in the U.S. labor market – low levels of education, moderate levels of English-language knowledge, and so forth.

So maybe that’s a long answer to a short question, but the bottom line is that things like minimum wage would probably help the illegal immigrants if we’re going to letting them stay. And I guess my final point is we have to make a decision about that question. If policy is to let illegal immigrants stay, then we need to legalize them and try to make sure that they are as protected in the labor market as they should be. If the policy is to try to enforce the law and encourage as many to go home as possible to help American workers, to help legal immigrants put upward pressure on wages, then that’s the other policy.

In some ways, whenever you bring up illegal immigration and what to do about illegal immigrants here, it really hearkens back to the underlying question: What do we want to do with illegal immigration? Do we want to actually enforce the law and try to reduce the size of illegal immigration, or do we want to just tolerate it and manage its consequences? And to that end – or maybe even legalize folks. That’s, obviously, another big option. And I think that’s really the question you’re asking, what to do about illegal immigration.

It’s a reminder, though, that tolerating illegal immigration and not resolving that problem has a cascading series of consequences on our society, and this is just one. It makes it harder to deal with a problem like overcrowding. So, anyway.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Any thoughts either on that or just sort of general last thoughts, Peter? Because we’re going to wrap it up here.

MR. SKERRY: Yeah. Well, on the topic that Steve was just addressing himself to in response to your question, I guess I – what this raises for me is something I’ve argued elsewhere, which is that if we – I might – other things being equal in the context of this conversation, I might be inclined to argue for a minimum wage approach as opposed to a(n) earned income tax approach for – precisely because it would serve to benefit illegal immigrants more than an earned income tax credit would. And when I say that, what I mean to underline is that I’ve argued that I think we need to own up to the fact that illegal immigrants are here, particularly under current circumstances where the influx of undocumented immigrants is greatly curtailed if not – if not come close to stopping. You gentlemen would – could elaborate on that better than I.

But I think, particularly under these circumstances, we have responsibilities to people who have been here, especially people who have been here for many years. They’re here illegally in part because we’ve let them come here. We’ve encouraged them to come here. As a – as a – as a political community we’ve done that, and I think we need to own up to those – to those responsibilities. But we need to own up to them in a way that doesn’t put in place incentives for more undocumented immigrants to come here. That’s, as you know better than I, a difficult tightrope to walk. But if – but we need to try. And I think that is an important element of any immigration reform moving ahead, not to vilify or penalize most or any of the undocumented who are here, but at the same time owning up to what a catastrophe this has been politically and otherwise for us as a nation and for the undocumented themselves, and moving forward to make sure that we don’t allow this to continue.

And on that note, I’ll stop.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Peter. It’s Peter Skerry, professor of political science at Boston College, commenting on the report we’ve been discussing today by – led by the co-author of the report, Steven Camarota, director of research, Center for Immigration Studies. The report itself is online at We’re also on Facebook. And on Twitter we are at @CIS_org. We appreciate everyone’s attention and questions, and look forward to having another one of these events in the future. Thanks for joining us.