According to anti-immigrant groups such as the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), every immigrant worker who enters the U.S. labor force is stealing a job from a native-born worker. In this view of the world, employment is a zero-sum game in which immigrants and the native-born compete for a fixed number of jobs. So it should come as no surprise that CIS has been gradually releasing a series of state backgrounders which seek to demonstrate that all of the net increase in employment in a given state since 2000 went to immigrants. Over the past couple of months, CIS has targeted Tennessee, then Florida, then North Carolina, then Georgia. The arguments are the same for each state, as are the flaws in reasoning.
The point of these backgrounders is not difficult to grasp: immigrants in these states (and whichever states CIS focuses on next) presumably got all of the new jobs which would have gone to the native-born if the immigrants hadn’t been there. However, the elegant simplicity of this argument is undermined by the fact that labor markets don’t work that way in the real world. Immigrant workers, like native-born workers, are also consumers, taxpayers, and—sometimes—entrepreneurs who creates new jobs through their purchases of goods and services, their tax payments, and their investments. If you remove the immigrants, then you remove a lot of the jobs as well.
Moreover, unemployment has generally been falling in Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia in recent years. Perhaps this is why CIS neglects to mention that the highest unemployment rates in the country tend to be in locales with relatively few immigrants. The reason for this is straightforward: immigrants usually go where the jobs are. Nor does CIS mention that, because immigrant and native-born workers tend to have different levels of education and different skill sets, they do not generally compete for the same jobs. This “complementarity” between immigrant and native-born workers increases the productivity of the native-born—and their wages as well. Given these omissions, it is predictable that the CIS backgrounders would fail to recognize the economic benefits which would flow from the legalization of currently unauthorized immigrants as their wages, purchasing power, and tax payments rose.
The CIS backgrounders are more about politics than they are about economics. Each one starts off by noting that the immigration reform bill the Senate passed in June 2013 “would have roughly doubled the number of new foreign workers allowed into the country and legalized millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States.” In other words, CIS is trying to scare the public and policymakers into not supporting any future efforts at immigration reform on the grounds that such legislation would flood the every state in the country with job-stealing immigrants.
The portrait of state economies that emerges from the CIS backgrounders is one in which every misfortune since 2000 is somehow tied to immigration. In this worldview, unemployed Americans could simply be swapped like batteries for immigrants with jobs. Aside from the fact that this is a completely unrealistic view of how the U.S. economy actually works, there remains the fact that CIS offers no viable alternative to the status quo. All that CIS ever has to offer is a continuation of the same failed and costly enforcement-only strategy that has produced no discernible results for over two decades.
Photo by Gabe Austin.