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GOP Tries To Scare Minorities Into Supporting Anti-Immigration Policies

Published on Thu, Mar 03, 2011

On Tuesday the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement held a meeting that purported to explore the effects of undocumented workers on the labor market. “Making Immigration Work for American Minorities” included prepared statements from the President of the San Antonio Tea Party and a professor representing the abjectly titled—and thoroughly unprogressive—Progressives For Immigration Reform (PRIF), among other specialists.

There were few surprises during the hearing—the subcommittee chair, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) began with a statement that read, in part, “Virtually all credible studies show that competition from cheap foreign labor displaces American workers, including legal immigrants, or depresses their wages.”

His references include a Pew Hispanic Survey that shows seven million undocumented immigrants have jobs in the U.S. and a study conducted by the risibly partisan The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) that determined undocumented workers depress wages for all low-skilled workers by $1,800 a year. Rep. Smith then cites a Harvard research paper by George Borjas that found undocumented workers reduce the wages of low-skilled American workers by 7.4 percent.

I’ll get to the findings in a moment, but I think it’s bedeviling Rep. Smith relies on two studies that view undocumented immigrants in a negative light, and stops right there. Doing more to cement anti-immigrant advocates as purveyors of hyperbole and anecdote, Smith says:

“But research is not the only proof. After illegal workers are arrested and detained during Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) worksite enforcement actions, many businesses replace them with American minorities.”

A footnote? A statistic? He doesn’t even offer a number pulled from the firmament. Instead, he entreats lawmakers to fix an immigration system that hurts “American workers” and particularly “African Americans.”

Back to CIS. The organization seems to oppose birthright citizenship; its confessed motto is "low-immigration, pro-immigrant." It’s not particularly well-funded, either. 990 forms CIS filed for 2009 show total assets are just under $1.8 million. Their statistical findings also cause pause.

Campus Progress has previously examined the positive effect undocumented workers have on wage levels and employment rates in this country. Meanwhile, the Economic Policy Institute shows immigration as a whole increased wages for nearly every demographic other than men without a high school degree. Call that the “crowding-out effect” University of California-Davis Professor Giovanni Peri describes in several papers. But that shouldn’t lead one to think undocumented immigrants take away jobs from Americans.

The Migration Policy Institute shows that since 1960, the percentage of working-age adults who have not completed high school dropped from 50 percent to just 8 percent. As Peri concludes, it seems the presence of low-skilled labor allows businesses to open up and rely on their services, prompting more able Americans to expand their skill set and pursue higher paying jobs.

Next, the allegation undocumented workers take jobs from African Americans is ludicrous. The Immigration Policy Center explains that since undocumented workers flock to large cities with job potential, one would expect to find a high rate of African American unemployment in those cities.

As the chart shows, there is no correlation between the two groups’ level of unemployment. The horizontal plane shows cities with the lowest to highest levels of foreign-born residents, left to right.

Meanwhile, a study co-authored by George Borjas, the Harvard professor Rep. Smith referenced in his opening remarks, shows without new waves of immigration, legal or otherwise, there would be far fewer businesses operating today because of an inadequate labor market. His partner on the paper, Lawrence F. Katz, co-authored another study that showed income inequality in the bottom half of the economic ladder has not increased since the 1980s—meaning the huge spike in undocumented immigrants since 1990 has had no statistical effect on the economic fortunes of the Americans they allegedly affect.

The hearing seemed like nothing more than building a straw man to deflect attention from a Republican Party pursuing culture war issues and deficit reduction measures that are slated to extirpate 700,000 jobs from the economy. And since when does the GOP care about collapsing wages? Right-to-work laws, a party policy mainstay, shrink wages by about the same amount CIS alleges undocumented workers do.

The hearing also wrongly depicted undocumented workers as a privileged class. Never mind the high rates of injury and abuse they suffer on the job in the U.S., and the limited legal recourse available to them. In the past 15 years, worksite injury among Latin American workers has doubled while the national average has fallen. That they routinely earn below minimum wage doesn’t stop one witness from PFIR calling the current immigration legal climate a means of reinforcing “a de facto privileged status in favor of immigrant workers, especially illegal immigrant workers.”

Deriding the struggles of the poorest Americans and ascribing them to some elitist pantheon is a ploy used, unsurprisingly, by public officials who oppose collective bargaining agreements. NJ Governor Chris Christie launched a similar salvo against public employee union workers, painting them as elites who enjoy a double standard. The battle lines drawn over the Wisconsin imbroglio show collective bargaining is no longer inviolate; to many conservatives union safeguards are an expression of the cushioned lifestyle labor union members enjoy. That narrative is as bogus as the one bandied about during yesterday’s hearing.

Is the GOP pursuing a divide and conquer strategy to temporarily win support from minority groups that normally don’t support them? Are they using the same tactics to splinter labor groups? Whatever they’re doing, the immutability of social and economic research show they are wrong.

Published in the Campus Progress | Read Article