February 6, 2008
Illegal Immigration and Low Wage LaborBy Lee Cary
Leprechauns, unicorns, and the assertion that illegal immigrants take jobs Americans won't do -- they're all myths. Some myths are harmless, while others, like the medical benefits of bleeding, cause harm. The assertion about illegal immigrants taking unwanted jobs is not harmless. Low wage Americans bear a considerable burden.
As Will Rogers said,
The Farm Worker Myth
In recent years, ripening crops regularly are accompanied by stories suggesting we need illegal immigrant labor to bring in the harvest. For example, on July 20, 2007, a Wall Street Journal editorial entitled "Immigration Non-Harvest," breathlessly began with this paragraph:
Visions of crops rotting in the fields make for vivid journalism. But in September, 2007 a Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress (updated from a 2004 version) entitled "Farm Labor Shortages and Immigration Policy," found little cause to worry about crops ripening and spoiling, stating that,
Any significant shortage of farm workers ought to have been reflected in an increase in their wages, according to the law of supply and demand. But, from 2001 to 2006, the ratio of hourly field worker wages (those engaged in planting, rending and harvesting crops) to private nonfarm worker wages maintained a constant 0.54 for six consecutive years. That doesn't preclude the existence of temporary spot shortages, but it does argue against a systemic shortage of farm workers.
[A 2007 study written by Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis, for the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) entitled "Farm Labor shortages: How Real? What Response" further substantiated the conclusions of the CRS Report, and, consequently, challenges the premise of the WSJ editorial.]
Busting The Myth Across Industries
Employment statistics invariably lag behind the calendar. A March 2006 CIS study of the top 22 occupations in 2005 indicated that in no occupational category did immigrant employees outnumber native employees. In other words, native-born U.S. workers are already doing jobs where high concentrations of illegal immigrant are also employed. The largest share of immigrant employees was 44.7%, and the category was "Farming, fishing and forestry." The largest raw number of immigrant employees was in "Construction and extraction" where 2,209,000 immigrants (26.1% of the total labor force) were outnumbered by 6,250,000 native employees.
A deeper examination into statistics that focuses on less-educated workers (high school degree or less) indicates a higher concentration among immigrant employees. In "Farming, fishing and forestry," less-educated immigrants outnumber natives 364,000 to 338,000. But, there were an estimated 56,000 unemployed (14.2%) native workers in that category. In construction, native unemployment was 12.1% with 577,000 unemployed native workers.
The point: low-skilled illegal immigrant workers are wage leveraging native workers out of the occupational categories typically cited by perpetuators of the myth. The job categories include, but not limited to: farm workers, construction laborers, cleaning and maintenance providers, and food preparers.
Here's one example of that wage-leveraging impact from the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR):
The myth becomes truth if amended to read: Illegal immigrants accept jobs that American workers won't do for poverty level wages and no benefits (including healthcare).
The Truth Behind The Myth
Some conspiracy theorists claim that an open borders policy aims to create poverty in the U.S. while relieving poverty in Mexico as part of a grand scheme to eventually unite the two countries into one, minimally in the style of a European Union. The truth, though, is alluded to in a December 2006 "Special Report" entitled "Undocumented Immigrants In Texas: A financial Analysis of the Impact to the State Budget and Economy," released by Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.
Strayhorn, the mother of President George W. Bush's former press secretary, Scott McClellan, and an unsuccessful opponent of Texas Governor Rick Perry in the last election, offered this summary of her study:
In other words, sure there are costs involved in hiring "undocumented workers." But, forget the laws against illegal immigration and employing illegal immigrants, say some. The benefits are good for the Texas economy and outweigh the costs.
Two famous, now deceased, Americans warned us against uncontrolled immigration. Barbara Jordan, Chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, testifying before a Joint Congressional Committee on June 28, 1995, said,
Jordan's warnings were ignored, as were the words earlier of the founder and president of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, who, in a Letter to Congress in March, 1924, wrote:
To paraphrase Will Rogers, it's not the warnings you don't hear that hurt you; it's the ones you hear and don't heed.