Opinion

What’s missing in the immigration debate: American wages

This week Congress received two letters: one from GOP donors and the other from CEOs, urging Congress to act on immigration. The Washington Times reports: “Nearly a hundred top Republican donors and Bush administration officials sent a letter to the House GOP on Tuesday urging lawmakers to pass a bill that legalizes illegal immigrants. … The donor letter came the same day that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 400 other businesses and umbrella groups fired off a letter to House leaders of both parties, urging them to pass something.”

One word not mentioned in either letter: wages.

These groups would have us believe this is just about providing amnesty to illegal immigrants. That’s certainly a large part of it: businesses know that legalizing illegal workers will expand the available labor pool for many industries with the effect of pushing down wages in areas where illegal workers might not have previously had access. But there is a phrase in the letter which has gotten too little attention, and which explains what this really all about. Rove and the donors say that legislation must, “provide a legal way for U.S.-based companies to hire the workers they need.”

Of course, there already is a legal way for U.S.-based companies to hire workers they need: they can hire the people living here today who are unemployed. Or they can hire some of the million-plus immigrants we lawfully admit each year, or the hundreds of thousands of temporary guest workers we admit each year. We are a generous nation. And no one is saying these programs shouldn’t be improved. But what these businesses want is as much low-cost labor as possible. That’s what this is all about. They believe the immigration policy for our entire nation should create an abundance of low-wage workers. They, in their bubble, think that lower wages are good for America. Maybe some politicians do too. They’re not concerned with how the plan impacts workers, the immigrants themselves, public resources, the education system, or taxpayer dollars. They’re not focused on the broader economic or social concerns. The focus is reducing the cost of labor. But America has larger and more pressing concerns, such as unemployment and falling labor participation rates.

We all agree we must make America more competitive globally. Our workforce must be productive and competitive too. But the way to do that is not to reduce our wages and our workers’ quality of life. The way to do that is with a less burdensome tax code, a less intrusive regulatory system, and a tougher and smarter fair trade policy — these policies would make us more competitive and helps wages and working conditions rise.

So when these business voices and establishment figures say the GOP needs to support a comprehensive immigration bill, what they are really saying is that the GOP needs to increase low-skilled immigration as much as possible. The Senate bill, based on CBO analysis, would provide legal status to 46 million mostly lower-skill immigrants by 2033. Here’s what the National Review editorialized on the topic:

“By more than doubling the number of so-called guest workers admitted each year, the bill would help create a permanent underclass of foreign workers. The 2007 Bush-Kennedy proposal was rejected in part because it would have added 125,000 new guest workers. The Gang of Eight bill would add 1.6 million in the first year, and about 600,000 a year after that… And that is on top of a 50 percent or more increase in the total level of legal immigration… The creation of a large population of second-class workers is undesirable from the point of view of the American national interest, which should be our guiding force in this matter… The United States is a nation with an economy, not an economy with a nation.”

If members of Congress want to broaden their appeal, the answer lies in speaking to the real and legitimate concerns of millions of hurting Americans whose wages have declined and whose job prospects have diminished. In 2000, the New York Times editorialized against a “hasty call for amnesty,” and warned that “between about 1980 and 1995, the gap between the wages of high school dropouts and all other workers widened substantially. Prof. George Borjas of Harvard estimates that almost half of this trend can be traced to immigration of unskilled workers.” That data has since been updated: high levels of low-skill immigration between 1980 and 2000 (which would greatly be increased under current congressional proposals) have already reduced the wages of native-workers without a high school diploma by 8 percent. That’s about $263 per month — a huge impact on working people.