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Immigrants Aren’t Stealing American Jobs

21 Oct

Eco­nom­ists tend to agree that im­mig­ra­tion is good for the eco­nomy: Im­mig­rants cre­ate jobs and make U.S-born work­ers more pros­per­ous. Op­pon­ents of this idea of­ten cite the work of Har­vard labor eco­nom­ist George Bor­jas to ar­gue that, at the very least, low-skilled im­mig­rants steal jobs that low-skilled Amer­ic­ans would nor­mally do. Here’s The At­lantic’s Dav­id Frum flesh­ing out this cri­tique:

“If you as­sume that all low-edu­ca­tion work­ers are po­ten­tial sub­sti­tutes for each oth­er—the 23-year-old re­cent ar­rival from Guatem­ala with the 53-year-old who pro­ceeded from high school to the Army—then your mod­el will show a less dra­mat­ic ef­fect of im­mig­ra­tion on wages. If, however, you as­sume that the 23-year-old Guatem­alan is com­pet­ing with 20- and 30-something nat­ive-born work­ers who lack dip­lo­mas, then your mod­el will show a very big ef­fect.”

The core of this ar­gu­ment re­lies on the as­sump­tion that sim­il­arly edu­cated nat­ive-born and im­mig­rant work­ers of the same age don’t take on com­ple­ment­ary roles in the job mar­ket as eco­nom­ists sug­gest—but rather eye the same jobs. But a new ana­lys­is of Census data from the Urb­an In­sti­tute finds evid­ence to the con­trary.

Urb­an’s Maria E. En­chauteg­ui stud­ied a co­hort of 16 mil­lion Amer­ic­an work­ers without high school dip­lo­mas. She found that with­in this group, im­mig­rants and nat­ive-born work­ers do very dif­fer­ent jobs. In fact, she writes that nat­ive and im­mig­rant work­ers at this level of edu­ca­tion are much more dis­sim­il­ar when it comes to their role in the job mar­ket than are work­ers at oth­er levels of edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment. Here’s how she sum­mar­izes these res­ults and their im­plic­a­tion in a blog post:

These find­ings sug­gest that im­mig­rants and nat­ive work­ers with low levels of edu­ca­tion may be com­pet­ing for dif­fer­ent jobs and even could be com­ple­ment­ing each oth­er. Im­mig­ra­tion status can con­strain a work­er’s job choices, but many im­mig­rants are work­ing dif­fer­ent jobs from nat­ives be­cause they have lim­ited Eng­lish lan­guage or tech­nic­al skills, or be­cause they have in­suf­fi­cient ex­pos­ure to the US work­place. If un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants be­come au­thor­ized to work in the United States, that still may not be enough to in­crease com­pet­i­tion with nat­ives for low-skilled jobs.

En­chauteg­ui of­fers two charts show­ing the dif­fer­ent types of oc­cu­pa­tions im­mig­rants without high school de­grees tend to do (top), com­pared to nat­ives (bot­tom):

While there is some over­lap, the most com­mon oc­cu­pa­tions are dif­fer­ent for nat­ive and im­mig­rant work­ers—and that dif­fer­ence might widen in the fu­ture. En­chauteg­ui men­tions that while the num­ber of U.S. nat­ives without a high school de­gree is de­creas­ing, the share of such im­mig­rant work­ers with this level of edu­ca­tion has been climb­ing. By 2022, 4 mil­lion more jobs that don’t re­quire high school de­grees will be ad­ded to the U.S. job mar­ket. We’ll need low-skilled im­mig­rants to do those jobs, as nat­ive-born work­ers gradu­ate to high­er-skill level po­s­i­tions.