Are illegal immigrants to blame for joblessness?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

Byron York is out with a thought-provoking, if troubling, column today, based on a Rutgers University study showing that “more Americans than previously thought blame illegal immigration for the problem of unemployment.”

York is, of course, correct in pointing out the disconnect between elites and the rest of the nation. This disconnect may be especially true in Washington, DC — a geographical region that has been mostly spared by the economic downturn.

Regarding the public’s perception of the “major causes” of the joblessness problem, York writes:

Seventy percent named “competition and cheap labor from other countries.” The next-highest number, 40 percent, blamed “illegal immigrants taking jobs from Americans.” That 40 percent is more than blame Wall Street bankers (35 percent), the policies of George W. Bush (23 percent) or the policies of Barack Obama (30 percent).

Of course, just because the public feels a certain way, doesn’t make it so. I would suspect that automation — the fact that American manufacturing is actually more efficient (and thus, requires fewer workers to produce greater output) is a major factor — and yet it is largely overlooked. But it’s easier to scapegoat China — and immigrants — than robots.

The notion that we’re not blaming our politicians also strikes me as problematic. There are at least 5 Clinton and Bush-era policies that contributed to the Great Recession.

And why is it that the public re-elected Barack Obama — in spite of our struggling economy?

Having said that, there are plenty of understandable reasons why American elites do view immigration differently than working class Americans. For one thing, many elites probably know hard-working immigrants as nannies, gardeners  etc. — and probably find them to be more capable and trustworthy than many Anglos.

There’s also this: Despite the perception, it seems the only Americans really hurt by immigrants are “low-skilled” workers.  As George Mason University’s Bryan Caplan writes,

Under open borders, low-skilled wages are indeed likely to fall, but most Americans are not low-skilled. Over 87 percent of Americans over the age of 25 are high-school graduates (U.S. Census Bureau 2011). Most of the world’s would-be immigrants are, at best, substitutes for American high-school drop-outs.

… Immigration makes low-skilled natives worse off, especially if they rent. But most Americans gain.

York’s column should serve to remind everyone — even those Americans doing reasonably well — that a lot of Americans are experiencing severe economic distress. Having said that, public opinion — which typically becomes more populist and nativist during bad economic times — shouldn’t necessarily drive our public policy decisions.