How Immigration Reform Helps the Economically Disadvantaged

The fever pitched argument over a southern border wall generally comes down to a few repeated assertions from both sides.

The “pro-wall” pitch is usually that it will reduce crime and lower the estimated nine-digit social welfare expense of caring for illegal immigrants. Meanwhile on the other side, the “anti-wall” contingent typically argues that it would be ineffective in slowing illegal immigration and that its construction-cost would be prohibitive. There has been so much hyperbole from both sides in this quarrel it’s hard to know what is true. But stepping back for a moment from the heated rhetoric, there’s another case to be made for limiting the influx of illegal immigrants.

The primary reason for most immigration — both legal and illegal — is economic. People come to the United States seeking a better life, which means jobs that pay more than the below-poverty wages earned in their home countries. And most immigrants, lacking legal documentation, can only find employment in the lowest tier of the workforce — competing for jobs against the most vulnerable American workers.

Low-skilled jobs paying at or near the minimum wage are typically filled by workers having only a high school diploma at best. These are disproportionately held by Hispanics and African-Americans. Add to this mix roughly a 25 increase increase in the labor pool from illegal immigration and the result is reduced wages and increased unemployment for American citizens, native-born and legal immigrants alike. Harvard Kennedy School economist George J. Borjas estimates that for every 10 percent increase in the supply of labor, wages decline by at least 3 percent. The effect of this on the low-skilled workforce means a reduction in annual earnings in the neighborhood of $800 to $1,500 — the difference between existence and poverty for millions of vulnerable people.

To be sure, there are economists on the other side that argue mass immigration — both legal and illegal — is good for the economy. On a national level that may be true since lower wages result in lower consumer prices and also an increased GDP. However, that argument ignores illegal immigration’s effect on low-skilled workers’ income and employment. Even liberal economist Larry Summers agrees that what’s needed is “an approach where it is understood that countries are expected to pursue their citizens’ economic welfare as a primary objective, but where their ability to harm the interests of citizens elsewhere is circumscribed.”

Indeed, looked at from this perspective, the left should be clamoring for a wall, or any other way to curb illegal immigration. The groups they seek to help the most, the economically disadvantaged and minorities, are the ones most harmed by allowing (even encouraging) illegal border crossings to continue.


By Kevin Cochrane for THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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