My colleagues Steven Camarota and Karen Zeigler have published a report showing that all the net growth in employment among the working-age (ages 16–65) over the last decade went to immigrants (legal and illegal). Since 2000 the total number of immigrants employed is up by 5.3 million, while native-born employment is down 1.3 million. And this is despite the fact that immigrants accounted for only one-third of the growth in the working-age population. That means the U.S.-born working-age population increased by 16.4 million from the first quarter of 2000 to the first quarter of 2013, but the number of them working declined. So natives accounted for two-thirds of the growth in potential workers, but none of the growth in actual workers.
The decline in the percentage and number of Americans working has happened across the gamut of U.S.-born groups: men and women, almost every age range, education level, and ethnicity. The biggest decline has been for workers under age 30, but the share of the native-born working in their 30s, 40s, and 50s has also declined significantly. The decline for workers began before the 2007 recession. At the peak of the last expansion, in 2007, the share of natives employed was lower than at the prior peak, in 2000.
The huge immigration increases in the Obama immigration bill that passed the Senate have been justified publicly with two main arguments: first, that there’s a labor shortage, and second, that mass immigration will create jobs for American workers. The first claim is Orwellian nonsense and unworthy of a response. The second claim is less absurd on its face, but if it were true — i.e., mass, unskilled immigration actually created a net gain in jobs for Americans — wouldn’t we have seen that happen over a 13-year period? How long are we supposed to wait before we see the bounty of jobs for Americans that’s supposed to result from mass immigration? Or is this one of those things, like Communism, whose proponents say haven’t failed because they were never really tried? But at the very least, it’s indisputable that sustained, large-scale immigration is consistent with reductions in employment numbers and rates among the native-born.
There’s also the Jobs Americans Won’t Do excuse, which is totally illegitimate. Of the 472 civilian occupations defined by the Department of Commerce, only six are majority immigrant (legal and illegal). These six occupations account for 1 percent of the total U.S. workforce. Many jobs often thought to be overwhelmingly done by immigrants are in fact majority native-born: 51 percent of maids are U.S.-born, as are 63 percent of butchers and meat processors, and 73 percent of janitors.
The House debate over the Obama immigration bill represents an enormous opportunity for Republicans to rectify the errors of recent elections and take the party in a new direction. Republican office holders have generally agreed with the Chamber of Commerce and its ilk that we need a constant influx for new workers from abroad. But with little or no real wage growth in the last two decades for most American workers and 59 million working-age Americans not employed, the GOP should include curbs on total immigration as part of a broader outreach to wage earners. (Senator Sessions showed the way during his valiant struggle against the Obama immigration bill.) Making it clear that on this issue the party does not do the bidding of corporate lobbyists is just what the party needs if it is going to woo back the millions of working class voters who stayed home in 2008 and 2012.
A populist economic message would not only appeal to the party’s base, it would place the Democrats on the defensive. Many voters rightly feel that on immigration both parties are serving special interests, such as ethnic pressure groups and corporations. Advocating lower levels of immigration on economic grounds would not only be good politics, it would be good policy.