Are Immigrants Taking Jobs, or a Vital Part of America’s Future?

John Moore/Getty Images

John Moore/Getty Images

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) recently published a report on employment and population rates compared between native-born Americans and foreign-born workers. The analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showed that a majority of the cumulative increase in employment was amongst foreign-born workers, while very little improvement was seen in native-born unemployment. In fact, looking solely at data for native-born individuals, employment numbers aren’t yet back to where they were prior to the Great Recession. The CIS uses this, and other data we’ll look at in a moment, to argue that Obama’s deferred action plan for illegal immigrants, and to “give legal status and work permits to millions of illegal immigrants” should be rethought. It argues that while members of Congress may be in favor of increasing immigration, there is clearly a disadvantage for the native-born unemployed.

This analysis makes a number of interesting and legitimate points, and its data is backed up by similar reports from the BLS. There are also a few flaws, or at least points, that deserved mention that did not receive it. So let’s take a look at a few probing questions — some that support greater caution with regards to immigration’s effect on the job market, and some that will show holes in the argument put forward by CIS’s data.

Was the employment increase for each demographic proportional to population increase?

My first concern was that there might be some sort of error if the number of foreign-born residents had increased greatly, and the resulting employment figure was a percentage of that boom, but not actually a significant portion of the unemployed population. Or that a larger number of that population had found employment than members of the native-born demographic, but proportionally, it wasn’t a high percentage.

Not so. As demonstrated in the table below, the percentage of the population at or over the age of 16 increased most for the native population, and the share of employment growth. So the lack of growth employment comparatively took population size in consideration.


Who does foreign-born include?

CIS also gives another number, saying that “the BLS reports that 23.1 million adult (16-plus) immigrants (legal and illegal) were working in November 2007, and that 25.1 million were working in November of this year.” It goes on to point out that this 2 million increase compares to a 1.46 million decrease in the population of native-born workers. Here the article makes note of the fact that foreign-born includes both legal and illegal immigrants. Later, in methodology, it goes into the specifics of that definition, which is the same as the BLS’s. “The Foreign born are those who reside in the United States but who were born outside the country or one of its outlying areas to parents who were not U.S. citizens,” states the BLS, adding that this includes “legally-admitted immigrants, refugees, temporary residents such as students and temporary workers, and undocumented workers.”

The is important because, when discussing the number of foreign-born workers who have gained jobs compared to native-born, it doesn’t make sense as an argument against allowing illegal residents to come out of the shadow and work legally, paying taxes for income they likely already were bringing in. These are individuals and families who are part of the population already, allowing them a degree of security and forcing them to contribute via taxes won’t exacerbate the problem of unemployment.

What’s more, including data on individuals who are legally within the U.S. seems less relevant to the Obama Administration’s plan. If students, legal workers, and even naturalized citizens of the United States (who just so happened not to be born in the country they now are fully, legally residing in) are being used in these data sets as part of the argument, it fails to recognize an undeniable fact about the United States. We are, always have been, and by necessity for the moment, always will be, a nation of immigrants. Of course, this is still relevant to the Schumer-Rubio bill, or S.744, which would significantly increase the number of immigrants legally allowed into the United States. Why do Republicans, staunch opponents to much pro-immigration policy, want to pass S.744?

According to proponents of the bill — who it’s worth noting are often critics of Obama’s policy — the increase in immigrants allowed to enter the U.S. legally is based on a long-term plan.

Not now, but in the future we’re going to have labor shortages. We have 10,000 people retiring each and every day in America when the Baby Boomers retire. We are not like Europe, we’re not like Japan in that our birthrates are really low, but they’re not high enough,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) according to RealClearPolitics. “Immigration, in a decade or so, can help us … We need an immigration system that works to bring people to this country who want to … contribute.”

What types of jobs are being “taken” as is indirectly being suggested here?

But what about now? The reports from both the BLS and from CIS are fairly dire, and they do make some significant points about those struggling to find work and the jobs successfully found by foreign-born workers. Something worth considering can be found in the May 22, 2014 News Release from the BLS, which goes into the same data as the CIS, but also discusses occupation statistics. Foreign-born workers are considerably more likely to work in the service industry by 24.8% to 16.7% — this number leaps to 32.9% compared to 19.8%.

Those born outside the United States are even more likely to work in “building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations, about twice the proportion for the native born.” Similar gaps are seen in production, transport, construction, and maintenance, among other things. Higher paying jobs are far more likely to be held by native-born Americans. And the fact of the matter is that underemployment is a huge problem in America right now; people can’t find full-time jobs. They can’t find work that is consistent or appropriate to their experience. Many people can’t find jobs in their field, jobs appropriate to their education or training, in management, like their last position, and so on. There is work needed, work out there, but sometimes it’s about finding the right training or the job for the individual. This is where the oft-repeated suggestion that foreign-born workers take the jobs and do the work that native-born workers don’t want. It’s only partly true, but in the case of CIS’s argument, it needs to be considered.

It’s also important to qualify that many foreign-born individuals in the CIS’s stats are students, or highly skilled workers with specializations we may not have competitively in the United States. Some are doctors, nurses, CEOs, and so on, and given the opportunity to stay legally and acquire an education, these individuals will play an extremely important role in making America competitive, pushing it forward, and creating jobs through a stronger economy.

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