When there are many willing workers, employers cut wages. That is simple supply and demand. Illegal immigrants who take low-skilled jobs reduce wages and take jobs from both citizens and legal immigrants.
A study by Harvard economist George Borjas shows that cheap immigrant labor has reduced by 7.4 percent the wages of American workers performing low-skilled jobs. A report by the Center for Immigration Studies concludes that “immigration may reduce the wages of the average native in a low-skilled occupation by… $1,915 per year.” Illegal immigrants come here to find jobs. You cannot blame them when a typical Mexican worker, for example, earns one-tenth as much as their American counterpart and when American businesses are willing to hire them. One study estimates that illegal immigrants displace 730,000 American workers every year.
Contrary to the assertion that Americans will not take low-skilled jobs, Americans in fact do these jobs every day. Americans mow lawns, wait tables and work in virtually all other low-skilled job categories. A report by the Center for Immigration Studies shows that more citizens than non-citizens are employed in construction and maintenance, which are thought of as having mostly immigrant laborers.
Some claim that illegal immigrants are doing jobs that Americans will not do. But when an illegal immigrant finds a job here, that does not mean that no American will take the job. In fact, 79 percent of all service workers are native-born, as are 68 percent of all workers in jobs requiring no more than a high-school education.
Illegal immigrants make up only 17 percent of workers in building cleaning and maintenance occupations, 14 percent of private household workers, 13 percent of accommodation industry workers, 13 percent of food manufacturing industry workers, 12 percent of the workers in construction and extraction occupations, 11 percent of workers in food preparation and serving occupations and 8 percent of workers in production occupations.
We must put citizens and legal immigrants first. Americans need these jobs: 17 million adult citizens do not have a high-school degree; 1.3 million are unemployed; and 6.8 million have given up looking for jobs. The percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds holding jobs in the United States is now at its lowest point since 1948. American workers in building cleaning and maintenance have an 11 percent unemployment rate, as do 13 percent of those in construction and 9 percent of those in food preparation.
Despite these facts, many U.S. lawmakers and interest groups want to enact another foreign-worker program. The Borjas study concludes that proposals that increase the supply of low-skilled workers will only drive down wages further for Americans.
Past experience shows that a foreign-worker program is an invitation to fraud. Individuals would set up bogus “businesses” to petition for temporary-worker visas for friends, relatives or any other illegal immigrant willing to pay. Even terrorists could set up these fronts. Under the 1986 immigration law, up to two-thirds of the applications for Special Agricultural Worker status were fraudulent, and most were approved.
Those who are hurt by foreign-worker programs are low-skilled Americans — the most vulnerable in our society. This includes new legal immigrants, who have to compete with a large pool of unskilled illegal immigrants. It’s not fair to them to fail to enforce current law and reward lawbreakers by letting them work here.
Americans do not want illegal immigrants to come here as workers and compete with Americans for scarce jobs. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked about President Bush’s proposal for a foreign-worker program. Fifty-eight percent strongly or somewhat oppose the plan, and only 38 percent strongly or somewhat support it.
Virtually all studies show that competition from cheap foreign labor displaces American workers, including legal immigrants, or depresses their wages. Rather than legalize illegal immigrants, we should enforce the laws on the books. That will reduce illegal immigration, increase wages and make these low-skilled jobs more attractive to American workers.
The result of a large illegal-immigrant workforce is that the poorest Americans must compete with those illegal immigrants for jobs. Illegal immigrants deprive American citizens and legal immigrants of the same American dream. That is wrong and regrettable.
Rep. John Hostettler, Indiana Republican, is the chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims. Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, is the former chairman and a current member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims.