Work: A Job Americans Won’t Do?
Why double immigration when so many people already aren’t working?

Members of the Senate "Gang of Eight"



Today is the first anniversary of the Senate’s passage of the Gang of Eight immigration bill (S.744). So it is fitting to remember just how out of touch that bill was with what is actually going on in the U.S. labor market. The labor-force participation of working-age native-born Americans (ages 16 to 65) is at a record low, and the number not in the labor force is at a record high. Yet the Gang of Eight bill would double the number of new legal immigrants allowed into the country over the next decade to 20 million, adding to the 40 million immigrants (legal and illegal) already here. It would also legalize some 12 million illegal immigrants. Democrats are extremely vulnerable on this issue. But instead of labeling the Democrats as captive to special interests and indifferent to struggling American workers, much of the Republican party’s leadership wants to go along with this scheme.

A new report from the Center for Immigration Studies finds that the labor market looks dismal. We examine the employment rate — the share actually holding a job — and the labor-force participation rate — the share either holding a job or looking for one. (We also looked at the unemployment rate, but the government’s definition of “unemployed” is somewhat artificial and not especially illuminating.) In the first quarter of 2014, 58 million working-age native-born Americans were not working — 17 million more than in 2000. These figures do not include the 11 million working-age immigrants who are not working. Fully 34 percent of working-age natives do not have a job. As recently as the first quarter of 2000, the figure was 26 percent. (The report does not include those in prisons.)

Despite this situation, Paul Ryan has argued that without the substantial increase in immigration expected under S.744, the country faces “labor shortages.” He is certainly not alone; Rand Paul, John Boehner, Jeb Bush, and many other Republicans have forcefully argued not just for amnesty of one kind or another, but for substantial increases in the number of foreign workers allowed into the country. Such Republican leaders seem to be listening only to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the other businesses and industry associations that want more access to workers — both skilled and unskilled.

But there is zero evidence that labor is in short supply. Real wages for men, women, the well-educated, and the less-educated show no long-term growth. Even in science and technology, wage growth has been relatively flat for years. Perhaps more important, Figure 1 shows that over the last 14 years employment growth has not come close to matching the combination of natural population increase and immigration. The working-age population (native and immigrant) grew by about 14 percent, while employment grew only about 4 percent.

What the figure does not show is that much of the gap between population and employment growth has fallen on natives. The total number of working-age immigrants holding a job increased by 5.7 million from the first quarter of 2000 to the first quarter of 2014, while the same figure declined by 127,000 for natives over the same period. This is truly striking because the working-age native-born population increased by 17 million over this time period and accounted for two-thirds of overall population growth among those 16 to 65. Yet what employment growth there has been all went to immigrants.

Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and other like-minded Republicans seem to think that the arrival of immigrants so stimulates the economy as to generate jobs not only for immigrants but for natives as well. While this study, this study, and this study indicate that immigration reduces the employment of natives, there is debate among economists on this question. However, there is no question that since 2000 at least 17 million new legal and illegal immigrants have settled in the country, while at the same time there has been a long-term decline in employment among the native-born. Thus mass immigration in the last 14 years has certainly not so stimulated the economy as to prevent a dramatic decline in work among native-born Americans.