Immigration Helps American Workers: The Definitive Argument (And Why It Won't Matter)


A recent Washington Post article reports on new studies about the employment effects of immigration. The basic conclusion? Immigrants don't displace native-born workers. In fact, the former help the latter become more productive.

New white papers from the German research group IZA document the following, all of which are obvious upon a minute's reflection:

  • immigrants fill labor gaps; 
  • immigrants don't have access to the same jobs as natives;
  • immigrants complement (rather than replace) existing capital, tech, and workers; 
  • labor markets adapt; 
  • complementarity increases productivity, which in turn increases wages.

The IZA papers are here and here.

Regarding whether immigrants cause unemployment, here's an IZA chart which shows no relationship between immigration rates and unemployment rates in developed (OECD) countries:

And here's a chart from a meta-analysis of economic studies of the effect of immigration on wages. The vast majority report that the direct effect is near zero, meaning that immigrants do not depress native incomes by creating a vast army of the unemployed.

I don't expect this latest foray into empirical reality to change most people's minds on immigration.

As Wash Post's Lydia DePillis writes, "Despite manifold evidence to the contrary, the trope that immigrants steal Americans' jobs and depress their wages comes up again and again when Congress toys with passing immigration reform."

Yet the simple reality is something like this: Immigrants, who are barred from receiving most forms of welfare in America, come here for economic opportunity, not to lounge around. They go to areas with lots of jobs and they stop coming when work dries up in America (that explains fluctuations in illegals crossing the border with Mexico). They either do jobs that Americans won't do (such as migrant farm work), jobs that free up native workers to do higher-value jobs (immigrants take care of your kids or cut your grass so you have more time to do jobs that required English, local knowledge, and pay better), or high-skilled jobs for which there's a shortage of native workers (H1-B visas). Doubtless there are some local disruptions from time to time, but all of this helps the larger economy become bigger.

I might also add that except in very rare instances, governments do about as good a job at securing borders at home as they do in keeping drugs out of jails and schools or nation-building abroad. Sure, North Korea can do a decent job of keeping its half-starved "citizens" from escaping but the only reason the Hermit Kingdom isn't overrun with illegal immigrants is because nobody wants to move there. As Lant Pritchett, formerly of the World Bank and now at Harvard, will tell you, people move to where the action is whether border bluenoses technically allow it or not. And if you think immigration is a problem, just wait until the world's wretched refuse stops beating a path to your country. Those of you living in parts of the country without a lot of immigration (whether by "Americans" or foreigners) know exactly what I'm talking about.

But the immigration debate is ultimately more about optics and emotions than reality.

That's why so many restrictionists focus on things such as cultural assimilation (never mind that today's mostly Spanish-speaking newcomers learn English at the same rate as yesteryear's Italians, Poles, and Jews); the unbearable burden of having to specify what language you want at an ATM; and the outrage that Irish Americans held the world's first-St. Patrick's Day parade in colonial New York as a way to piss off "real" Americans (by which I mean English-descended overlords) Mexicans celebrate Cinco De Mayo and drink beer like a bunch of American college students on Spring Break.

Or restrictionists fixate on the willingness of cantalope-calved "criminals" to cross a fucking desert in order to send money back home to a Fourth World village somewhere while also committing violent and property crime at lower rates than native-born Americans. Or they enlist SCIENCE in the cause of closing borders: Don't you know that evolution means we are designed by nature to hate Mexicans who don't look anything like us second-generation Italians, third-generation Jews, and seventh-generation Tennesseans?

I understand that point of view and I can appreciate the anxiety of people who displace their worries about their lives on people who don't look, talk, or smell like them.

But that sort of atavism and emotionalism is simply no basis for public policy or living an examined life. If it is allowed to guide immigration policy, it will lead to an America that is not just poorer in material terms but absolutely beggared in spirit.