The Immigration Reform American Workers Deserve

February 23, 2016

Democrats have wholeheartedly taken up the issue of income inequality and stagnant real wages of working class families.  Bernie Sanders has criticized our current trade policy; making it a centerpiece of his campaign. He does not support the purposed TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) trade agreement.

Here in Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown has been a longtime opponent of “free trade”.  Former Gov. Ted Strickland, who has a good chance of unsetting Sen. Rob Portland (r) in the upcoming election, is also campaigning against trade deals that put Ohio workers in direct competition with cheap foreign labor and sends Ohio jobs overseas.

What does it matter if we send American jobs overseas for foreign labor to fill or we bring foreign labor into the U.S.?  This is the disconnect of progressive economic labor policy.

In the relatively recent past, prominent liberals agreed that rapidly expanding the labor pool by bringing in millions of immigrants was not in the best interests of working Americans. Labor union leaders and civil rights luminaries, for a century right through President Bill Clinton, supported reducing the number of work permits for foreign laborers. They understood that such a move would spur wage growth and expand job opportunities for Americans.

A 1995 congressional commission, chaired by the charismatic civil rights leader and Democratic Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan, recommended limiting immigration to 550,000 individuals a year. President Clinton praised the recommendation as a “balanced immigration policy that . . . protect[s] the American work force.”

There is no good reason to continue giving out one million new lifetime work permits every year, supporting guest worker programs and having a permissive attitude towards illegal immigration when over 15 million native and immigrant Americans already here are currently unable to find full-time jobs.

From 1924 to 1965, America sharply scaled back the number of immigrants it accepted. Without competition from a large pool of foreign-born laborers, American workers were better able to unionize and demand improved wages and benefits.

The share of income going to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans dropped from 43 percent in 1924 — the year lower immigration quotas were implemented — to less than 32 percent in 1965 — the year the quotas were replaced with the current immigration system.

The post-1965 influx of workers helped freeze wages. In fact, inflation-adjusted wages have actually declined over the last forty years. The average worker in 1973 earned a higher real wage than the average worker does today.

Economists have concluded that high levels of immigration are partially responsible for wage stagnation. Harvard professor George Borjas, an immigrant himself, has shown that expanding the size of any working cohort — as defined by age or education — by 10 percent through immigration reduces the wages of all native-born folks in that group by 2.5 percent. The effect on native-born men is even greater — a decline in wages of 3.7 percent.

For Americans without a high school degree, the wage losses are even more pronounced — about $1,200 for the years between 1990 and 2010.

Immigrants themselves are not at fault. The overwhelming majority of immigrants are industrious people who work hard. It is just that in America, hard work often is not rewarded.  The strongest work ethic in the world cannot defeat the law of supply and demand. The more workers who need a job, the less employers have to pay to attract employees.

Our leaders have the power to stop this economic race to the bottom and boost wage growth. Scaling back the pace at which our nation admits new laborers from abroad would help disadvantaged immigrants who are already here. It would take job-market realities into account and give native and immigrant American workers the leverage to win back the wages and benefits they’ve lost over decades.

America has been and must continue to be a nation that does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or national origin, but there’s no need to bring in one million permanent immigrants every year, allow guest worker programs, on top of illegal immigration when current residents cannot find good-paying jobs.

If progressive candidates are serious about standing up for American workers, they must consider greatly reducing the number of foreign laborers who have access to the American labor market through trade policy and immigration policy.


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