Immigrants — both legal and illegal — have accounted for all of the job gains in the U.S. labor market since 2000, according to a report that highlights the stiff competition for jobs in a tight economy as Congress debates adding more workers to the mix.
The Center for Immigration Studies report, which is being released Wednesday, says 22.4 million immigrants of working age held jobs at the beginning of this year, up 5.3 million over the total in 2000. But native-born workers with jobs dropped 1.3 million over that same period, from 114.8 million to 113.5 million.
Meanwhile, the number of Americans who aren’t in the labor force at all has jumped by almost 13 million to reach 48.6 million — a finding the report’s authors say signals profound changes in the American job market and challenges conventional wisdom that immigration is good for the economy.
“The last 13 years, or even the last five years, make clear that large-scale immigration can go hand-in-hand with weak job growth and declining rates of work among the native-born,” the authors, Steven A. Camarota and Karen Zeigler, say in their report. “Given the employment situation in the country, the dramatic increases in legal immigration contemplated by the Gang of Eight immigration bill seem out of touch with the realities of the U.S. labor market.”
Whether immigrants compete for jobs is a heated topic — though the Senate all but ignored it during the chamber’s debate on its bill to legalize most illegal immigrants and create opportunities for new immigrants and temporary workers to enter the U.S.
The outlines of those programs are coming into view. The Congressional Budget Office calculated that boosts in immigration and guest-worker programs would add about 12 million new people to the U.S. in 2023, in addition to millions of illegal immigrants who would gain legal status and work permits.
Overall, CBO said those added workers will help the U.S. economy, though the effect on wages is more complex. At the high-skilled and low-skilled ends there may be some slight wage slippage, CBO found, but wages for those in the middle would go up.
Still, what that means for individual workers is hotly debated outside Congress.
Alex Nowrasteh, immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, said the latest research suggests there isn’t actually much competition for jobs between immigrants and native-born workers, particularly at the low-skilled level, because even there, both groups end up specializing.
He pointed to the example of a restaurant, where poor English might push low-skilled foreign workers toward jobs washing dishes or cleaning up, while native-born workers would specialize in jobs that require communications, such as waiting on tables.
Mr. Nowrasteh hadn’t seen the latest Center for Immigration Studies report but questioned the numbers in a previous version, saying he had been unable to duplicate them in his own research.
Mr. Camarota defended his numbers, saying they came straight from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and that he used the same definitions of native-born and foreign-born that the CPS uses.
In 2006 and 2007, the previous two times the Senate debated a broad immigration bill, the competition between native-born and immigrants was a major focus — and helped sink the 2007 effort when Democrats pushed an amendment cutting the guest-worker program in half.
Mr. Nowrasteh said this time around, that debate was transferred to closed-door negotiations — chiefly a deal between the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on how to construct the future immigration and guest-worker parts of the bill.
With those two advocacy groups’ blessing, there was little dissent on the issue.
Just one amendment on the Senate floor dealt with potential competition for jobs, and that was a minor measure to require states to certify that their employers are actively trying to recruit American workers before businesses can try to recruit seasonal workers, who are often used at summer beach resorts or winter ski slopes. That amendment passed by voice vote.
“I think this time around, the pro-immigration reform forces are much better organized and on the offensive, whereas in 2007 the anti-reform people were better organized and on the offensive,” Mr. Nowrasteh said.
Mr. Camarota blamed the lack of a floor debate on the political pressure on both parties to get a deal done.
“The Democrats don’t want the issue to come up because they’re very anxious to make sure they get a legalization and there,” he said.
As for the GOP, he said that’s a matter of listening to businesses rather than looking at the data.
“Every piece of data that the government collects on wages and employment does not support the idea that we have a labor shortage. The only piece of evidence that there is a shortage of workers is testimonials of owners of businesses that want access to more foreign labor, and that’s what Republicans listen to,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who fought against the Senate bill, said he hopes that when the GOP-controlled House takes up the issue it will have more to say about immigrants competing for jobs.
“This study underscores that the economic problem facing America right now is not too few workers but too many unemployed workers,” Mr. Sessions said.