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Does Immigration Hurt U.S. Workers?

U.S. Economy and Immigrants blog
Photo credit: Laura Elizabeth Pohl

The last few weeks have been some of the most momentous in immigration policy reform since Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986. IRCA legalized 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants.

President Obama’s executive action last month differs from IRCA in that it provides a temporary stay of deportation and provisional work permits to as many as 1.4 million young unauthorized immigrants. The muted response from some Republicans, including Mitt Romney, indicates that this category of legalization – for young people brought to this country as children -- has some level of bipartisan support going into next year.

This means that for the first time in many years, major immigration reform seems like a real possibility.

But as temporary work permits are issued, and as broader long-term legalizations are considered, one of the key arguments made by critics of legalization is (re) emerging: legalizing immigrants hurts the U.S. economy. With no quick recovery of the economy forecast, this is likely to be an important critique of any legalization proposal for the near future.

A letter sent by a group of Republican senators in response to President Obama’s decision summarizes this point-of-view: “We are also concerned that the directive being implemented allows individuals…to obtain a work authorization…It is astonishing that your administration would grant work authorizations to illegal immigrants during this time of record unemployment. Your directive will only increase competition for American students and workers who struggle to find employment in today’s economy.”

The impact of immigration on the economy is a complex one that has been researched for decades, but the consensus has remained fairly steady: immigration – including unauthorized immigration – has an overall positive net impact on the U.S. economy and on U.S. workers. That’s what a 1997 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report found, and that’s what a recent USDA report on the economic impacts of immigration confirmed.

Looking at the two reports, not much has changed over the past 15 years in the conclusions reached through an economic analysis of immigration.

The NAS report states, “Immigration benefits the U.S. economy overall and has little negative effect on the income and job opportunities of most native-born Americans.”

The May 2012 USDA report concludes: “The negative economic effects generated by the departure of a significant portion of the [unauthorized] labor force [would] outweigh the positive effects on the wages of U.S.-born workers and other permanent residents employed in lower-paying occupations.”

So while immigration produces economic winners and losers, 15 years of economic research says that the assertion that immigration hurts the overall U.S. economy does not have strong research support.


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Thank you for clarifying this point that so many are concerned about. Immigrants in my community are willing to work hard at jobs few native born Americans want to do. Our food supply depends heavily on immigrants who make up a majority of farm labor. We are blessed by newcomers who bring new life and vigor into our land.

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