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The Wrong Immigration at the Wrong Time


May 17, 2023

The ending of Title 42, has again moved immigration to center stage.  With foreign-born as a share of the U.S. population at historic levels, matching the early twentieth century, there is intense conflict over desired policies. Supporters of continued expansive southern border immigration argue that their numbers are crucial to counter the labor shortages that have contributed to continued inflation. They cite recent comments by Federal Reserve Chair Powell that “a drop in immigration as key reasons why there are fewer people participating in the workforce than before the pandemic.”

What they neglect to mention is that Powell’s comments were focused on the decline in the share of skilled workers coming into the U.S. through “H-1A and H-1B visas which are “still below 2019 levels.” Indeed, H-1B visas have been capped at 85,000 for the last twenty years with annual applications now totaling eight times that figure.  These are the workers where labor shortages are the most striking and they are choosing to move to Canada where the immigration policy prioritizes them and has no yearly limits.

The continued influx of less educated workers through the southern border will not reduce skilled worker labor shortages, but could potentially have adverse effects on native-born workers, particularly Black men. During the pandemic, the employment rate for young Black men increased dramatically.  For Black teenage men, it increased from 14.5% in 2011 to 21.4% in 2019 to 26.3% in 2022, virtually matching the peak rate of 26.7% in 1999.

Continued lower-skilled immigration may threaten these gains.  There is a long history of many employers favoring Hispanic immigrants perceiving them as harder working and less demanding workers than native-born Black men. The liberal magazine The Root reported on the impact of immigration enforcement on Black employment in a chicken-processing plant. Following a raid that nabbed three hundred undocumented workers at a neighboring plant, House of Raeford Farms quietly began replacing its immigrant employees with native-born labor. Less than a year later, its flagship production line had been transformed, going from more than 80 percent Hispanic to 70 percent African American.

In a Politico article, economist George Borjas argued that low-wage immigration lowers wages for less educated Americans. Immigrants admitted in the past two decades lacking a high school diploma have increased the size of the low-skilled workforce by roughly 25 percent, which Borjas predicted would lower wages by 7.5 percent. He pointed to the dynamics at Crider, Inc., a chicken-processing plant in Georgia that lost 75 percent of its workforce when raided by immigration agents. Shortly afterwards, Crider placed an ad in the local newspaper announcing job openings at higher wages sufficient to attract native-born workers.

Some economists have linked immigration to substantial declines in the male labor market participation rate – men either working or actively seeking work.   The rate among men 18-to-64 years old without bachelor’s degree was 70.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2022, compared with 71.4 percent in 2019, 74.8 percent in 2006, and 76.4 percent in 2000.

A National Academies of Sciences study concluded that immigration reduces wages of less educated U.S.-born workers which reduces their incentive to work. Economist Jason Richwine pointed to research showing that immigrants displace high-school-age Americans from the labor force. More than one recent academic paper finds a geographic crowd-out effect: Immigrants tend to move into economically dynamic areas, reducing the incentive for natives to relocate there.

One last reason that the immigration is so contentious is the belief that current patterns will accelerate the ending of the U.S. being a white-majority nation and its potential political implications.  For many Democrats, a nation where “people of color” are a majority will be advantageous politically while for many Republicans this occurrence would further undermine the core principles of Western thought that they believe has been so crucial to our country’s greatness.

The problem, of course, is that suggestions that race and ethnicity dictate political and cultural destiny are quite problematic (if not racist) for any number of reasons.  As Yascha Mounk points out, “Three rapidly growing groups of Americans that should, according to the prevailing narrative, simply see themselves as “people of color” actually have a much more complicated self-conception: mixed-race Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans.”

Mounk cites studies that a large share of children of white-Hispanic and white-Asian parentage identity in important respects as white; and indeed, so do a large share of Hispanics. Indeed, in 2020 two Hispanic progressives found that many Hispanics insisted on being white and were more likely than non-Hispanic whites to endorse anti-immigrant slogans. And the widely disparate Asian-American population is generally united in their focus on education that underpins their financial successes; successes that often puts them at odds with the demands of Black activists.

While there are certainly genuine humanitarian concerns that motivate many to seek an immigration policy that prioritizes the world’s poor, these are not the workers needed and they come at a sizeable cost: relocation, housing, and low-wage employment that leads to long-term access to safety-net programs.  Just last week, there was a large protest and legal action taken by black Chicagoans when the city recommended housing migrants in their neighborhood.  The sooner that U.S. policy substantially constrains their entry and moves to a Canadian-style immigration system that prioritizes skilled immigrants, the better the nation will be.