Are low-skilled immigrant workers cutting into American wages? Even the best economists can’t agree

May 15, 2009

Do immigrants take jobs from U.S. workers?
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Friday, August 11, 2006

Some economists say immigrants are a boon to the economy, but others say they are chipping away at wages and opportunities for Americans.

Day laborer Michael Wheatley says it would be easier for him to find work if there weren’t so many immigrants in North Texas. Restaurateur Randy Ford says he could not make a go of it without them.

Their opposing viewpoints mirror the national debate about the effect immigrants, particularly those here illegally, have on the U.S. economy.

Some economists believe that cheap immigrant labor is chipping away at the wages and job opportunities of low-skilled American workers. Others say it makes America more competitive.

“We have increased our dependence on illegal immigrants,” said Ray Perryman, an economist based in Waco. “It’s clearly been a net positive.”

Illegal immigrants make up nearly 5 percent of the U.S. work force, with large numbers of them in certain industries that require few skills and little education, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. They make up about 14 percent of construction workers, 17 percent of cleaning crews and 12 percent of food-preparation workers. One in 4 farmhands in America is an illegal immigrant.

A report released by the Labor Department in April said that in 2005, legal and illegal immigrants made up 15 percent of the U.S. work force. That number is higher in Texas, where 21 percent of the work force is immigrants, according to a 2005 report from the Congressional Budget Office.

More than 14 million of America’s immigrant workers, or 10 percent of the total work force, are here legally. America has issued more than 2 million work visas since 2000.

Illegal competition

A report released Thursday by the Pew Hispanic Center found that immigrants are not hurting native-born workers’ employment prospects, but it ended with a note about how much economists disagree on the issue.

Pia Orrenius, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas who has studied immigration, said she does not believe that immigrants are putting Americans out of work.

“If you look at the unemployment rate, it has just gone down, down, down at the same time we have had mass immigration,” she said.

Numbers from the Pew Hispanic Center show that immigration, legal and illegal, peaked at 1.8 million in 1999, when unemployment was falling. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that unemployment fell below 4 percent — a 10-year low — in 2000, just a year after the immigration peak.

But that was when the economy was strong, said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

He believes that illegal immigrants pushed low-skilled Americans out of work when the economy slowed.

“I’m not an anti-immigrant guy. I do, however, believe that illegal immigrants are a net detriment to the U.S. economy,” Sum said. “The problem is that all the hiring is now done 90 percent off the books. Americans never even see these jobs.”

Wheatley said that is what he is experiencing. The 44-year-old, who dropped out in the 10th grade, said he would get more work if fewer immigrants were at the Fort Worth Day Labor Center looking for short-term jobs such as painting, landscaping and moving furniture.

“They say they’re only taking the jobs that we don’t want. Bull hockey,” Wheatley said. “I do think that if we didn’t have so many immigrants here, we would get more work.”

The Day Labor Center does not ask workers about their immigrant status.

Diane Salazar, a human-service specialist at the center, said many contractors specifically request Mexicans, believing they’ll work hard.

She said that has eased somewhat now that immigration has become a hot issue and federal crackdowns on illegal immigrant workers made the news.

Some local businessmen said they simply could not make it without immigrant workers.

“If I didn’t have them, I’d be out of business,” said Mark Stanfield, owner of Southern Refractories. “They’ve been taught to work like hell.”

His Southlake-based business lines and maintains the insides of giant kilns at cement plants. It’s hot, difficult work, and Stanfield said he cannot find Americans willing to do it.

Ford said he has had the same experience. The owner of restaurants in Arlington and Bedford said he used to be opposed to hiring immigrant workers but now embraces them after being let down by American workers.

When someone was hired for cleanup work, he lasted two days. The next lasted one day. The next lasted three. Ford eventually turned to a Mexican worker.

“We hired him, and he is still with me today, and that has been 20 years ago,” Ford said. “I’d be in real hard shape without the folks that I have.”

He said all his kitchen crew members at J. Gilligan’s in Arlington are immigrants. He and Stanfield said their workers are here legally but have the characteristics that many other employers find so appealing about illegal immigrants: They are punctual and hardworking.

Many illegal immigrants have found jobs in the American workplace because immigration laws are not often enforced. In fiscal 2003, immigration officials spent only 4 percent of their time on workplace enforcement, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Workers from Central America typically have about nine years of education, according to the 2005 Congressional Budget Office report. Some economists believe that illegal immigrants with little education are cutting into the wages of America’s high school dropouts.

Harvard economist George Borjas has argued that competition from immigrants drives down the wages of high school dropouts by 8 percent in the short term when immigrants first show up in the work force and 5 percent in the long term when they become a more permanent part of the work force.

For example, dishwashers in Tarrant County make $6.56 an hour, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. If Borjas is right, the native-born dishwashers here are making 37 cents less an hour — or nearly $770 less a year — because so many immigrants are here scrubbing dishes, too. That’s more than two weeks’ pay.

Such competition might put a squeeze on America’s low-skilled workers, but it has also increased productivity, which benefits the economy as a whole, according to James Smith, an economist at the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank. He said such contributions could add up to a $10 billion boost in the economy.

Rakesh Kochhar, the author of the Pew Hispanic study released Thursday, said it’s the growing economy, not immigration, that affects unemployment rates.

“It’s more likely that economic growth is a strong factor,” Kochhar said. “That might be the trump card.”

Orrenius said cheap immigrant labor drives down the cost of many things Americans buy, from homes to produce.

David Card doesn’t think illegal immigrants are hurting American wages at all. The University of California at Berkeley economist compared data from cities that have many immigrants with data from cities that have few immigrants and found no harm done.

He believes that high school dropouts find jobs elsewhere when illegal immigrants show up.

But concern about competition from illegal labor shows up in polling. The less education Americans have, the more they think immigration is a serious problem, according to the Pew Research Center.

The biggest beneficiaries

Economists said the biggest beneficiaries of immigration are the immigrants themselves.

Most of America’s 11.7 million illegal immigrants come from Mexico. According to the World Bank, Mexico has the highest per capita income in Latin America.

But the U.S. is attractive to Mexicans because its minimum wage is nearly 11 times higher than Mexico’s.

Immigrants interviewed agreed that the move to the United States is a personal economic boon, even with the inconveniences of coming here illegally.

“We have everything we want,” said Erica, who asked that her last name not be used because she came here illegally with her husband six years ago. They now have their own apartment, two cars, a television, a microwave — all things they could not afford in Mexico.

José Salas, an immigrant who came here illegally and became a legal resident when the government granted sweeping amnesty in 1986, said leaving Mexico helped him financially.

“There’s a lot of work here,” said Salas, who works in a factory that makes roofing materials. “In Mexico, the money there doesn’t have any value. … You cannot make enough to maintain your family.”