Are Immigrants Taking Your Job? The Debate Continues

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By Laura D. Francis

President Donald Trump’s call for a more restrictive immigration policy is spurring discussions about how immigration helps or hinders Americans’ job prospects.

A “more restrictive immigration policy” will reduce the number of jobs and “lower GDP growth in the long run,” Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, told Bloomberg BNA March 9.

Immigration restrictions decrease the population, resulting in fewer consumers, fewer reasons for investors to start businesses and lower job creation, he said. There hasn’t been any civilization that “had a declining population and more prosperity,” Nowrasteh said.

But it’s not just about population size, Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, told Bloomberg BNA March 9. The “big problem” is “the enormous number of people who are not in the labor force,” he said.

Declining Labor Force Participation

The labor force participation rate for people age 16 and older—the percentage of that population either working or looking for work—stands at 62.9 percent as of January, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means 37.1 percent of the population isn’t working or seeking work.

The current unemployment rate is 4.8 percent, according to the BLS. The unemployment figure is different from workforce participation. BLS considers a person unemployed if they are available to work but out of job and if they have been actively looking for work within the last four weeks.

For the most part, the percentage of people in the labor force has been steadily dropping.

The situation is “particularly bad” when looking at “the less educated,” said Camarota, whose organization supports lower immigration levels. The “massive growth in non-work” is “the crisis that we face,” he said.

That increase in Americans not working isn’t necessarily the result of higher immigration rates, Camarota said.

Factors such as technological change, globalization and increased use of opioid drugs are contributors, he said.

But if so many people are out of work, that “calls into question the wisdom of continually bringing in so many immigrants” to fill open positions, he said.

That appears to be the view the president is taking.

Trump, in his Feb. 28 address to Congress, called for a “merit based” immigration system that cuts back on family-based and low-skilled immigration. White House press secretary Sean Spicer also said March 8 that Trump is “supportive” of a bill introduced by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) to reduce overall immigration levels.

No ‘Reserve Pool.’

But restricting immigration isn’t going to bring native-born U.S. workers back into the labor force, Nowrasteh said. A good number of Americans who aren’t working are disabled or on welfare, he said. There need to be “serious institutional reforms to get them to work,” he said.

“They’re not going to get rid of the welfare state any time soon,” Nowrasteh said. Even if welfare were eliminated, he said, “you wouldn’t be able to squeeze that many out of it anyway"—at most about 16 million people.

There just isn’t this “reserve pool of American workers” that employers can bring on if immigrant workers no longer were allowed in the country, Nowrasteh said.

The Pew Research Center March 8 found that, without future immigration, the U.S. working-age population will actually decline by 2035.

The number of prime working-age adults—between age 25 and 64—is expected to rise from 173.2 million in 2015 to 183.2 million in 2035, Pew said. But that growth is attributed to immigrants and the children of immigrants, it said.

The number of prime working-age adults who were born in the U.S. and who have U.S.-born parents is expected to decline over that period. So without any future immigration, the working-age population would drop to 165.6 million by 2035, Pew said.

Bringing Americans Back to Work

“There’s no question immigration is one of the key factors driving the size of the working-age population,” Camarota said. But the U.S. needs to consider strategies to bring out-of-work Americans back into the labor force, not just how to fill a growing number of jobs, he said.

“Stagnant wages” are one problem that should be addressed, Camarota said.

That’s not a function of immigration, Nowrasteh said. “The most pessimistic estimates” find that workers with less than a high-school education would see a wage increase of 4 percent if there were no immigrants competing for jobs, he said. For the rest of the population, immigration doesn’t affect wages at all, he said.

Not only that, but workers could see a decrease in the value of their wages if the administration adopts policies that reduce immigration and prevent companies from sending jobs overseas, Nowrasteh said.

“What’s the point of raising wages by 4 percent,” Nowrasteh asked, if workers can’t afford the resulting skyrocketing prices of goods and services?

And if the economy isn’t growing, there won’t be as many jobs to go around, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at lfrancis@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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