Divide & Conquer: The Real Deal with Immigrants and American Jobs

Divide & Conquer: The Real Deal with Immigrants and American Jobs

United Workers Rally for Fair Development and Workers' Rights. Photo By: Casey McKeel
United Workers Rally for Fair Development and Workers' Rights. Photo By: Casey McKeel

The constant barrage of anti-immigrant bashing from the current slate of Republican political candidates is not new. It’s not unique. It’s not even particularly imaginative. Whether on the national level among those aspiring to the presidency, or here at home from our conservative friends in the general assembly, Republicans and right-wingers have long used the immigrant community as one of their favorite groups for scapegoating America’s and Maryland’s problems. Unfortunately, in many cases white and black members of the working class have played right into their hands.

Principal among their complaints is the indefensible accusation that immigrants (particularly theundocumented) compete for jobs with Americans and adversely affect our native-born labor force. The logic makes sense. So it must be true, right? Evidence suggests that it’s not true, not in the least. Not only do immigrants not compete for the same jobs as native-born Americans, but their presence in the labor force has a positive effect for American workers, even those without a high school diploma. Consider the following:

In February 2010, economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute published an in-depth analysis on the wage earnings of American workers and the impact of the recent influx of immigrant job seekers. In the paper,“Immigration and Wages,” she concludes that immigration actually has helped to boost the relative weekly wages for native-born workers at all levels of education, including those with less than a high school degree. She reviews wage data from the US Labor Department between 1994 and 2007 and finds that, during this period, the arrival of 9.6 million immigrant workers (including naturalized US citizens, permanent residents, temporary visa-holders, refugees, and undocumented workers) boosted the weekly wages of US-born workers by 0.4%, or $3.68, relative to foreign-born workers. Further, in the four states with the largest increases in the number of immigrant workers—California, Florida, New York, and Texas—the overall effect of immigration on the relative wages of US-born workers was positive, mirroring the nation as a whole.

“Americans are right to worry about the declining quality of jobs over the last few decades, but this report shows that, for native workers at all levels of education, immigration had very little to do with it,” Sherholz commented in a press release for the report. "Other factors, like employers' aggressive anti-union tactics, the declining purchasing power of the minimum wage, and unbalanced foreign trade are the real culprits behind broad-based declines in wages and job quality."

A report released by the American Enterprise Institute and the Partnership for a New American Economy, in December 2011, reveals similar findings. Like Sherholz, economist Madeline Zavodny concludes in her report, “Immigration and American Jobs,” that immigration not only doesn’t cut into native-born employment, it actually helps to create jobs for native-born Americans. Zavodny analyzed census data in states with high numbers of immigrants and found no evidence that foreign-born workers have any adverse eff ect on the employment rates of American workers. In fact, she concludes that adding 100 H-2B workers (low-skilled immigrant worker visas) results in an additional 464 jobs for US natives, which constitutes a four factor increase in jobs for every new low-skilled visa granted to an immigrant.

In January 2010, the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration released a report containing complementary findings regarding the financial benefits that a program of legalization for the state’s undocumented labor force would bring to California’s coffers. In this report,“The Economic Benefits of Immigrant Authorization in California,” economists Manuel Pastor, Justin Scoggins, Jennifer Tran, and Rhonda Ortiz provide estimates of the economic benefits that would accrue to California and the nation through authorization of the currently unauthorized workforce. Th ey argue that granting legal status to the 1.8 million undocumented workers in California would result in a net gain of sixteen billion dollars annually to the state, accounting for higher earnings, higher taxes and higher overall spending.

The report states that the direct effects of wage improvements on income and sales taxes is substantial—including $310 million in state income taxes, $74.4 million in sales tax revenue, and $1.4 billion in income taxes for the federal government. Further, the study articulates additional benefits from authorization, including sharp increases in new jobs through both an increase in self-employment among immigrants and increased consumption, and 44,000 fewer children in poverty.

Pastor concludes that rather than using the slumping economy as an excuse not to provide comprehensive immigration reform, we should instead look at these results as an indicator that the opposite is true: to grant legal status to millions of able-bodied workers and entrepreneurs will only help our economic condition.

Sounds pretty good to me. But I know what doubters may be thinking, “That’s California, those liberal hippies. We need local data on the problem of illegal immigrants to find an appropriate solution here in the Old Line State.” Fret no more, my friends. That data has already been given to us.

In August of 2008, the Urban Institute collaborated with Baltimore’s own Annie E. Casey Foundation to prepare a comprehensive, state-wide report on the impact of immigrants on the rates of participation in the labor force by native-born Maryland workers. In their report,“The Integration of Immigrants and Their Families in Maryland,” Randy Capps and Karina Fortuny describe that during the study period (a period of remarkable growth in Maryland’s immigrant population) the labor force participation rate increased for native-born workers, among all educational levels and demographic groups. Specifically, the percentage of African Americans in Maryland’s labor force rose from 73% to 78% during the six-year study period. Additionally, the labor force participation rate for native-born workers without high school degrees rose from 52% to 57%, a five percent increase, despite the influx of immigrant workers into Maryland’s workforce at this time. These findings lead the authors to conclude that the dramatic increase in immigrants in the workforce from 2000 to 2006 “does not appear to have displaced signifi cant numbers of native-born workers regardless of race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status.”

Taken together, these data and analyses coalesce around one theme: that immigration brings benefits for the majority of native-born workers, and that these benefits are strongest when the immigrant workers are granted access to citizenship. There is no dearth of information and additional research that supports the conclusions of the few mentioned above. In this age of vitriolic speech and political division, it is more important than ever for us to insist on having a reasonable, evidence-based discussion on this important and sensitive issue, taking all social, legal, and economic factors into account.

Scapegoating immigrants (or any subset of the population) for all the problems in our society is a well-rehearsed, age-old tactic done with the intention to divide lower income and working class communities. Blaming immigrant laborers for job loss or economic decline does nothing to advance the interests of working people. Rather, it plays right into the hands of conservative, capitalistic interests who would rather see working class communities divided and in conflict. Several organizations in Maryland have recognized this tactic and are serving as a model for a better way to approach the immigrant workforce.

Unions haven’t always been pro-immigrant. Previously, many of the nation’s largest unions believed in the myths discussed above and supported a policy of strict immigration enforcement and protectionism of American jobs. However, in the last decade many of the country’s largest unions and their local affiliates have come to recognize the significance of the growth in the immigrant labor force and have begun adopting progressive positions on immigration reform, while working hard to recruit and organize immigrant workers throughout the country to strengthen the labor movement.

SEIU states that they are the largest union of immigrant workers in the country.These days, the SEIU is one of the more active union groups involved in the immigration reform movement. The organization has described its position as such:

It is not only right, but also critical to our Nation’s long-term interest that we treat immigrant workers in accordance with our nation’s highest values. Doing so will tie all workers closer together- regardless of their backgrounds- and build the strength and unity of working people so we can better address the challenges that plague America’s working families.1

SEIU recognizes that by welcoming and integrating immigrant workers into our labor-force and community, all workers in America will be legal workers, thereby doing away with the system of workforce tiers based on immigration status.

Casa de Maryland (CASA) is another local organization that seeks to integrate, rather than divide, immigrants and the larger working class community. At each of their worker centers, CASA provides employment services, vocational training, financial literacy, job development, and other social services to anyone who walks into one of their worker centers, regardless of ethnicity or immigration status. Contrary to conservative claims, their programs are not just for immigrants, but serve hundreds of non-immigrant citizens as well. CASA has made a point to provide their services and expertise to people of all racial and economic backgrounds in need of assistance. They actively engage workers of all backgrounds in the struggle for economic equality and social justice in Maryland.

United Workers provides yet another example of a unifying approach for empowering the working class. United Workers formed in 2002, right here in Baltimore. It was founded on the principle that all people are deserving of respect, basic human and labor rights, the right to work with dignity, living wages, and the right to organize for collective power. They celebrate the fact that low-wage workers hold leadership positions in their organization. They strive to unite workers “across color lines and language barriers,” and to work together for their collective good. They have had some significant victories in their brief ten-year history, including a successful campaign to establish living wage rules for workers at Camden Yards.

These are just a few examples of organizations that have rejected the “no-win” scenario where working people blame each other for their problems. Rather, they recognize that the best way to improve the condition of low-wage earners is for all workers to organize, find common purpose, consolidate their power, and fight for their collective interests. We can learn from their examples. Only together can immigrant laborers and the working class secure economic and social justice for each other by ensuring full labor and civil rights protections for all workers. In the words of Cesar Chavez, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community...Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

So, maybe the next time you hear someone ranting and raving about how these “illegals” take our jobs and drag down our country, you will have the facts, the knowledge, and, most importantly, the courage to stand up and challenge this assumption.

Michael Lynch has been actively working with Maryland’s immigrant community as an organizer, advocate, and social service provider for more than eight years. He is the former Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Latino Providers Network, Inc. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, where he specialized in management and community organization. He spent several years abroad working with impoverished peoples in Mexico and Guatemala. He lives in Baltimore city with his wife and two year old son.