Memo to House GOP: Immigration Surge Would Harm American Workers

by Andrew Stiles

House Republicans woke up after last night’s State of the Union address to find a missive on their desks from Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) and the GOP staff on the Senate Budget Committee. As House leaders prepare to hash out a way forward on immigration reform at their annual retreat this week, Sessions would like each member to consider ”The Economic Effects of Massive Immigration” before moving forward on a Gang of Eight–style reform package. 

The ten-page document touches on an aspect of immigration reform that has been completely ignored by reform activists and the media, which continues to frame the debate as a question over whether illegal immigrants should be given a special pathway to citizenship. It asks House Republicans to consider whether a massive increase in legal (and low-skilled) immigration, as called for in the Senate bill, is advisable at a time when the economy is still struggling. 

“Significantly increasing the inflow of immigrants would adversely shock an already weak economy, lower average wages, increase unemployment, and decrease each American’s share of national output,” the letter states. ”As the Congressional Budget Office observed in its evaluation of the Senate’s effort to increase immigration, the economy might be bigger because it would contain more people, but it would not be stronger.”

The CBO analysis of the Senate bill predicted that, as a result of the “influx” of new, low-skilled immigrants, “the unemployment rate would be slightly higher than it otherwise would be and average wages would be slightly lower” over the next decade. Average wages across the entire economy would be lower for the first twelve years after enacting the policy changes. 

CBO’s analysis was based in part on the academic research of Harvard professor George Borjas, who recently found that, over the last five decades, immigration was responsible for $402 billion in lost wages for American workers, as well as a $437 billion increase in revenue for American businesses. 

In other words, [Borjas] finds the increase for business is almost entirely paid for by the decline in wages earned by non-immigrant workers,” the document notes. On a related note, the Chamber of Commerce spent tens of millions lobbying for an immigration-reform bill last year, and plans to spend even more in 2014.

The letter illustrates the depressed state of the U.S. labor market, noting that labor-force participation is at an all-time low, and employment among the key 24- to 54-year-old age bracket has declined significantly. The median family income continues to fall. 

“It is against this difficult economic background that immigration reformers want to massively increase the number of work visas by increasing the flow of legal migrants and legalizing those in the country without documents: basically an increase from 10 to 30 million new workers over a 10-year period available to compete for any job,” the letter states.

Borjas and other experts have found that low-skilled American workers, who have already suffered disproportionately during the recession, are most likely to be affected by increased immigration. According to Borjas, increased immigration between 1980 and 2000 resulted in a 3 percent decrease in wages for the average American worker, and an 8 percent decrease in wages among high-school dropouts.

Sessions was one of the most outspoken opponents of the Gang of Eight legislation, and has been almost alone in arguing for the GOP to adopt a more populist tone with respect to immigration reform. Some House Republicans, including Senate candidate Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have joined him

It will be interesting to see whether his message catches on in the House, where conservatives are already wary of leadership’s determination to pursue immigration reform in an election year, even though most voters don’t consider it a priority

Read the entire document here.