Skip to Content

Scale back immigration, boost Michigan wages

5 Jan

By Jeff Kateff, The Detroit News

The U.S. government currently gives lifetime work permits to about one million new immigrants each year. Michiganians across the ideological spectrum think that number is far too high. The vast majority of Michigan conservatives want to reduce legal immigration by at least half — but so do 63 percent of independents and 62 percent of union households. Even people who have previously voted for Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow favor the reductions by a five to three margin, according to a recent survey from immigration reform group NumbersUSA.

It’s no mystery why Michiganians are so united on the issue. Despite the economic recovery, millions of local workers are still unemployed or stuck in low wage jobs. The last thing they need is to compete against a flood of foreign workers.

The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Economy Act, a new bill under consideration in the Senate, would relieve these workers by reducing immigration. With fewer people competing for a limited supply of jobs, Michigan residents would have an easier time finding employment and securing pay raises.

Our current immigration system has put Michiganders, especially blue-collar workers, at a severe disadvantage. The system admits 50,000 immigrants a year via a randomized lottery system. And it allows previous immigrants to sponsor hundreds of thousands of their relatives for green cards.

The system pays little regard to aspiring immigrants’ skills or education levels. Only one in 15 legal immigrants receives a green card because of his job skills, according to Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ariz., and David Perdue, R-Georgia, the sponsors of the RAISE Act.

As a result, most green card recipients have no special skills. Seventy percent of immigrants 25 and older don’t hold a bachelor’s degree. So they compete against less educated Americans for the same sorts of blue-collar jobs.

Disproportionately, they win that competition. In the past decade, immigrants have accounted for about 45 percent of employment growth in the United States, even though they only made up 17 percent of the labor force. The number of native-born Americans in the labor force was lower in 2014 than it was in 2007, before the recession.

Competition between foreign-born and native-born workers keeps wages low. A Harvard University study found that low-skilled immigration lowered wages for American men by over 3 percent from 1980 to 2000.

Michigan is all too familiar with this trend thanks to our state’s refugee resettlement policy. Since 2015, Michigan has received 2236 refugees from Syria out of the United States total of 20,859 — which is more than 10 percent. In fact, Michigan is a top destination for refuges, second only to California, which has a much larger population per capita. That’s not even counting the undocumented number of refugees who are planted elsewhere in America and move to Michigan.

Many of these immigrants lack basic language skills, and are consequently limited to working low-skilled labor positions.

Meanwhile, blue-collar Michiganders continue struggling to make ends meet. Though the state’s GDP jumped almost 20 percent between 2007 and 2015, median household income dropped seven percent.

The RAISE Act would help reverse this trend. It would do away with the lottery system and make sure immigrants can only sponsor immediate family members for green cards. The bill would cap yearly refugee admissions at 50,000. It would also institute a points-based immigration system that rewards highly skilled and educated applicants.

All told, the bill would reduce the number of legal immigrants to about 500,000 per year.

Michigan voters strongly support these provisions. Fifty-five percent want to scrap the visa lottery; only 31 percent want to keep it. Sixty-four percent say previous immigrants should only be able to obtain green cards for their minor children and spouses — not their extended family members.

Big business groups say reducing immigration would cause labor shortages and stifle economic growth.

Voters are skeptical, to say the least. Over 10 percent of Michigan’s black residents and 6 percent of Hispanic residents were unemployed in 2016, the latest year for which there is detailed demographic information. Nearly three-quarters of Michiganians think businesses should try harder hire underemployed minorities before looking for workers abroad.

Two in 3 voters believe employers should raise wages to attract American workers rather than depend on immigrant labor, even if the wage increases cause prices to rise for consumers.

Sen. Stabenow seems to agree. Early this year, she worried that guest workers were “replacing American workers” and asserted “American jobs (should be) offered to Americans first.” But she hasn’t yet taken a formal position on the RAISE Act.

Michiganians of all political stripes support scaling back immigration levels to open up jobs for Americans. Sen. Stabenow ought to join them.

Janine Kateff is the Republican Party chair of Michigan’s 14th Congressional District.