Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Immigration and the economy: Everything you believe is wrong

By Rosemary Joyce

I am not an economist. As an anthropologist, I have been trying to write about things like cultural difference and the need for mutual respect across differences in our pluralistic nation.

So it fascinates me that comments on my posts repeatedly, and often irrelevantly, argue that undocumented immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans, or that the costs of illegal immigration are bankrupting states and localities.

(Well, really, these commentators don't make fine distinctions among immigrants who are legally in the US and those who come outside the legal system, primarily across the Mexican border. Sometimes it seems to me that these commentators include in their condemnation even those naturalized citizens who seem "different" to them. But let's assume they would, if pressed on it, admit that immigrants allowed in the US legally, and naturalized US citizens, deserve to be employed as much as US citizens born here. So the sticking point is how migrants not admitted legally affect the US economy.)

Now Ezra Klein in the Washington Post has done us all the favor of pulling together data from research on this topic. He concludes, "the people who should most want a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants are the low-income workers who are most opposed to such plans".

Why? because research shows that

immigrants raise wages for native-born Americans

they make things cheaper for us to buy here

if we didn't have immigrants for some of these jobs, the jobs would move to other countries

Huh? I hear some of you saying; that's not what I read/heard on the radio/think makes sense.

What you think makes sense is that there are only so many jobs, so an undocumented immigrant who has a job must be taking it away from a legal resident or citizen. But UC Davis economist Giovanni Peri finds otherwise in studies of data from the last two decades.

A report on his research published in March on the website of the George W. Bush Institute summarized the main findings:

Immigration leads to significant gains in productivity without any negative impact on the wages or employment of less-skilled workers and with a positive impact on the wages and employment on more highly skilled workers.

For every 1% of employment made up by immigrants in a state, overall wages rise 0.4% to 0.5%.

Ezra Klein points out that immigration provides "complementary" workers for the US economy, who take different jobs than the existing workforce.

This is the point that was theatrically underlined by the United Farm Workers' recent campaign, "Take Our Jobs". It offered to place legal residents in the kind of low pay, back-breaking work in agriculture that both legal guestworkers and undocumented migrants do. So far, only 7 applicants (out of 8600) actually accepted and stayed on these jobs.

An article by AP reporter Garance Burke reports similarly low numbers of takers in response to ads from farmers in a range of states for US citizens or permanent residents.

As Klein explains, the presence of immigrants as complementary workers expands the labor force available to do jobs that are lower skilled, lower paid, and simply not jobs most US workers will take. And that allows expansion of work that in turn creates better-paid jobs to organize the projects in which the low skill low paid workers are employed.

Think of it this way: if all those farmers are unable to get workers to pick their produce, their farms will fail and they will be out of work. If all those construction companies are unable to get workers to do the unskilled manual labor, the project managers, electricians, plumbers, architects, landscape designers, and other skilled workers will be unemployed.

Finally, having those low paid workers to do basic services keeps the cost of living down for everyone, which means your standard of living is better. Food in the US costs less because the labor costs of production are low because of unskilled migrant labor. Gardening, housekeeping, and a number of other things like dining out that are part of the dream of upwardly mobile skilled workers in the US would be unaffordable if it were not for the presence of lower paid migrant labor.

Klein's column says we need to keep in mind research published in 2005 that claimed that native-born high school dropouts did lose jobs to undocumented migrants. But already in 2006, that study was contested by others that found the effects of competition for low wage, low skill jobs did not account for the well-documented drop in wages for high-school dropouts nationally. Comparing California, where such competition was likely a factor, with Ohio, where at the time it was not, studies found that high school dropouts saw their wages decline by 17% in California-- and by 31% in Ohio.

The original study by Harvard economist George Borjas and his colleague Lawrence Katz estimated that wages of native-born high school dropouts declined 8.2% between 1980 and 2000 due to competition from unskilled migrant labor. But they also noted that number was not adjusted to account for the positive effects such migrant workers had in keeping some businesses alive and based in the US. The authors of the study noted that adjusting for those factors would reduce even their original estimated effect in half.

David Card, an economist at UC Berkeley, did an analysis that compared US cities where immigrants were part of the labor pool to those where they were not. His study, also published in 2005, found no differences in wages that could be attributed to the presence of immigrants in the labor pool.

Of course, you know which number got picked up in the media and used by pundits interested in encouraging xenophobic responses, right?

(Don't believe me, Ezra Klein, or the researchers to whom I link? Try reading this report from the Brookings Institute.)

So now we get back on my territory, which is culture. Because the explanation for the continuing hysteria about illegal immigration and excessive claims about its effects on the economy is not rooted in knowledge; it is rooted in belief.

It is eerily like a concept developed about fifty years ago by a Berkeley anthropologist, George Foster, "The Image of Limited Good". Foster was analyzing why rural peasants in Mexico were conservative. His explanation is complicated (it is, after all, anthropology, the social science that values the particularities as much as the generalizations). But fundamentally, it comes down to the sense that if someone else has something more than me, it must have come somehow at my expense.

The zero sum logic of employment that people apply to migrant employment in the US is related. If someone has a job processing chickens, and I am unemployed, even though I would not take that chicken processing job (or move to another state where such jobs exist), my unemployment, which puts me at a disadvantage, must somehow mean they are getting something at my expense. Even though the truth is, my ability to buy chicken at the grocery store at a price I can still afford by part-time work is dependent on their working for relatively low wages.

That sense that others advance at our expense is whipped up by pundits and politicians. The resentment that begins as a sense that someone else has something you should have spreads into a general account of why the other person is not worthy of the added benefit, so surely they obtained it in an unfair fashion.

I get the cultural basis of this. The only thing that puzzles me is, why don't the unemployed who believe their jobs went to illegal immigrants resent the people who really did get something for almost nothing? why side with the rich and powerful who let down the workers of this country, who have increased their wealth while most people have seen their income and assets dwindle in value? why blame the poor and unprotected workers?

And that is where otherness comes in. People who are not like us. People whose motivations we don't understand. What are they saying to each other when they chat on the bus in their foreign language?

This I do get. Growing up in Buffalo, New York, I rode the bus back and forth to high school through a neighborhood full of people who hadn't assimilated. They kept to themselves; they had their own churches, their own markets; they spoke among themselves on the bus in their unintelligible language.

They were Polish-Americans in a city with a proud and long history of accepting immigrants as a labor force that fueled industrial employment, employment that went away as company directors made decisions that rationalized how goods would be made and where they would be made by pursuing the cheapest possible labor elsewhere.

So I get the business of feeling like an outsider to an enclave. But overcoming this knee-jerk reaction against others is the core of our claim to establish a different way of being a nation.

And besides: I like having fresh vegetables I can afford. Don't you?