Democratic disconnect on immigration
American workers’ votes are up for grabs. And Democratic presidential candidates are working hard to snag them.
Democrats have taken up the issue of income inequality and stagnant wages of working class families. Bernie Sanders has criticized our current trade policy and campaigned against trade deals that put American workers in direct competition with cheap foreign labor and send American jobs overseas.
But what does it matter if we send American jobs overseas and bring foreign labor into the U.S.? This is the disconnect of progressive economic labor policy.
In the relatively recent past, prominent liberals agreed that rapidly expanding the labor pool by bringing in millions of immigrants was not in the best interests of working Americans. Labor union leaders and civil rights luminaries, for a century right through President Bill Clinton, supported reducing the number of work permits for foreign laborers. They understood that such a move would spur wage growth and expand job opportunities for Americans.
A 1995 congressional commission, chaired by the charismatic civil rights leader and Democratic Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan, recommended limiting immigration to 550,000 individuals a year. President Clinton praised the recommendation as a “balanced immigration policy that...protect(s) the American work force.”
From 1924 to 1965, America sharply scaled back the number of immigrants it accepted. Without competition from a large pool of foreign-born laborers, American workers were better able to unionize and demand improved wages and benefits.
The share of income going to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans dropped from 43 percent in 1924 (the year lower immigration quotas were implemented) to less than 32 percent in 1965 (the year the quotas were replaced with the current immigration system).
The post-1965 influx of workers helped freeze wages. In fact, inflation-adjusted wages have actually declined over the last 40 years. The average worker in 1973 earned a higher real wage than the average worker does today.
Economists have concluded that high levels of immigration are partially responsible for wage stagnation. Harvard professor George Borjas has shown that expanding the size of any working cohort — as defined by age or education — by 10 percent through immigration reduces the wages of all native-born folks in that group by 2.5 percent. The effect on native-born men is even greater — a decline in wages of 3.7 percent.
For Americans without a high school degree, the wage losses are even more pronounced — about $1,200 for the years between 1990 and 2010.
Immigrants themselves are not at fault. The overwhelming majority of immigrants are industrious people who work hard. But the strongest work ethic in the world cannot defeat the law of supply and demand. The more workers who need a job, the less employers have to pay to attract employees.
There is no good reason to continue giving out 1 million new lifetime work permits every year, supporting guest worker programs, and having a permissive attitude towards illegal immigration when over 15 million native and immigrant Americans already here are unable to find full-time jobs.
If progressive candidates are serious about standing up for American workers, they must consider greatly reducing the number of foreign laborers who have access to the American labor market through trade policy and immigration policy.