Jeff Sessions' Handbook of Immigration Lies

Sessions' anti-immigration narrative has little basis in the economic literature


Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama has declared an all-out jihad against any immigration reform that does not involve bouncing off immigrants of all varieties — skilled or unskilled — at the border. One glance at his newly

Jeff Sessions
Gage Skidmore / Foter / CC BY-SA

released 25-page immigration memo – which he grandiosely dubs a "handbook" — makes it abundantly clear that as far as he's concerned, immigrants are the Number One bane of this land of immigrants.  Why? Because, apparently, they increase "income inequality and joblessness by expanding the labor supply in excess of demand" and undercut American wages.

He naturally pours invective against President Obama's alleged "executive amnesty" — the restrictionist term of art for a three-year reprieve from deportation of undocumented workers that doesn't even involve a path to legalization let alone citizenship. But he doesn't stop there. He also goes after legal immigration of all kinds. "Large scale immigration" he claims, has contributed to a "typical 18- to 34-year-old earning about $2,000 less per year (adjusted for inflation) than their counterpart in 1980" etc. etc.

"What sense does it make to continue legally importing millions of low-wage workers to fill jobs while sustaining millions of current residents on welfare?" he concludes.

And it's not merely "low wage workers" he finds distasteful. He calls the high-tech industry's pleas to expand the cap on H-1B visas, which is reached within a few weeks after becoming available in boom years, the "Silicon Valley Stem Hoax."

"[T]here is no shortage of qualified Americans ready, able and eager to fill these jobs" he declares. And Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, whose chicanery he singles out by name, are hoaxsters for claiming that there is.

Sessions is marketing his memo as the "best academic evidence" on the subject – which apparently includes such august sources as the Center for Immigration Studies whose most original contribution to the immigration debate is that immigration raises global greenhouse gas emissions.

Be that as it may, the truth of the matter is that the "best academic evidence" couldn't lend a bigger lie to almost everything Sessions claims in his handbook.

There are few areas on which most economists agree about anything. But one of them is that immigrants on the whole are an incredible economic boon.

Let's take the high-skilled variety:

A 2011 study by Madeline Zavodny for the American Enterprise Institute examining data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia found that between 2000 and 2007 every additional 100 immigrants with advanced degrees in STEM fields from American universities created 262 new native jobs.

As for low-skilled workers, even Harvard's George Borjas, the darling of the restrictionist right, admits that immigration results in overall gains to the tune of $22 billion annually for natives. Borjas, however, claims that these gains are not evenly distributed and immigrant labor causes the wages of comparably employed natives to drop by 2 to 8 percent.

But George Mason University's Bryan Caplan dug up stats from Borjas' own paper showing that the actual, long-term drop in native wages of all affected workers was much, much smaller. (Check out the table on page 12 of this paper where I actually do summarize the "best academic evidence" on the economic impact of immigration.) Subsequent research has failed to corroborate even this small harm because, as it turns out, Borjas over-estimated the substitutability of immigrants and natives and therefore ignored the comparative advantage that native skills bestowed upon them in the wake of greater immigration.

None of this of course accounts for the overwhelming benefits of immigration to American consumers whose real wages go up because immigrants lower the prices of goods and services for them. Reason.tv's video on five ways that low-skilled immigrants help the American economy go here.

For an excellent point-by-point debunking of literally every Sessions' claim, which he has been hawking long before he decided to compile them all in his handbook of lies, check out this post by Cato Institute's Alex Nowrasteh.


Claim:  The last 40 years has been a period of record immigration to the United States.

Fact:  About 13 percent of America's population is foreign born, below the all time peak of 14.7 percent in 1910. The average percent of the population that was foreign born between 1860 and 1920 was about 14 percent – higher than it is today. As a percentage of the U.S.-born population, yearly immigrant flows to the U.S. are half of what they were during the 19th century and early 20th centuries.  Rich countries like Canada, Australia, and Switzerland all let in far more immigrants as a percentage of their population every year and have far larger immigrant populations. Switzerland, for instance, lets in about five times as many immigrants as the U.S. does every year as a percentage of their population. The percent of the U.S. population that is foreign born is also below the OECD average. In and of itself, that is not an argument for opening lawful immigration but it should damper the notion that the U.S. has the most immigrant friendly policies in the world. The numerical numbers of immigrants who come here yearly is large, about the same annual number as a hundred years ago, the U.S. has the third largest population in the world to absorb them.     

Claim:  Immigrants take American jobs.

Fact:  Immigrants come when the\re are jobs available and leave when there aren't many. There has been a slow-down in unauthorized immigration since the beginning of the Great Recession because many of the jobs immigrants used to work evaporated during the housing collapse. The collapse in new housing construction tracks very closely with the decrease in unauthorized immigrant crossings. Throughout American history, immigration increases during times of economic prosperity or decreases and sometimes reverses during bad times. More guest workers and lawful immigrants will ensure that when the economy recovers, Americans will be able to find enough workers to fill positions and enough customers for new goods and services.  But due to the economics of immigration, we will not be overwhelmed by immigrants when there are no jobs for them.   

Word has it that Sessions lost his bid to become chair of the Senate Budget Committee partly because his seriously fact-challenged, anti-immigration crusade did not sit well with many senior Republicans. Let's hope that they ignore his "handbook" and move forward piecemeal with the kind of rational immigration reforms that I laid out in the latest issue of Reason here.

If Sessions wants a job as a border bouncer, Kim Jong Un no doubt could use a pair of extra hands.