Are Immigrants Really Stealing American Jobs?

The Room for Debate blog on recently had a group of experts weigh in on the recession and competition for lower-wage jobs between native-born workers and immigrants, both legal and illegal. We've always heard people scream about how immigrants "steal jobs from real citizens" or how Americans would "never accept the jobs that immigrants do" and were fascinated to hear what those on the front lines of this issue had to say.

Do immigrants steal jobs away from native-born citizens?

Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, says that the unemployment rate for less-educated immigrants is somewhat better than for less-educated native-born Americans—signaling the fact that immigrants do indeed take jobs away. Michael Fix, senior VP at the Migration Policy Institute points out that effects of the recession on competition for jobs between immigrants and native born citizens will be less than expected because of the immigrant's ability to adapt, plus the fact that native-born Americans now have little access to the networks that employ day laborers, seasonal farmers and other sectors they've been abandoning over the last few decades.
Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director of the National Employment
Law Project, says that heightened competition for jobs is inevitable since it always happens when unemployment goes up and native born citizens become more willing to consider lower-level jobs.

Conclusion: Most of the job sectors dominated by immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, are those which native American citizens have been fleeing for decades. No one knows if and when this recession will get bad enough for native citizens to consider sectors they previously abandoned, but for now, it seems that immigrants remain a mainstay of low-end employment.

Are Americans willing to do the same jobs often performed by immigrants?

Gordon Hanson, professor and director of the Center on Pacific Economies at UC San Diego, asks the valid question, "Why would individuals who did not take jobs when labor demand was strong two or three years ago be more likely to work when new jobs are scarce today?" Camarota points to a 2007 American Community survey which said that 68 percent of construction laborers, 73 percent of dishwashers and 74 percent of janitors are native born American citizens, proving that Americans are willing to do this kind of work. Hanson and Camarota agree on the importance of the social safety net (i.e. welfare, food stamps) as far as motivation for employment is concerned. But Camarota says both immigrants and native born citizens alike will be leaning on these programs as the economy worsens, while Hanson argues, "Non-citizens, whether legal or illegal, are much less likely than natives to be eligible for government assistance, forcing them to depend on their own hard work to provide for their families." 

Conclusion: The answer for most of these experts seems to be a cut and dry, "No." Although Camarota provides some interesting stats, they aren't very relevant considering how narrowly applicable they are. However, again, it all seems to depend on whether or not the recession gets bad enough for people to accept jobs on the low-end of the spectrum. 

What, if any, solution can be found for the immigration issue during the recession?

This is the one place almost everyone seems to agree. Comprehensive immigration reform is obviously needed, which is something President Obama seems to be taking quite seriously. Another area that needs to be addressed, according to the experts, is labor. Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, points out the labor abuses suffered by many day laborers and immigrants, legal and illegal, saying, "Leveling the playing field will maintain and improve standards for all workers even in times of economic decline. In this sense, immigration reform with a path toward citizenship would be a win-win situation for everyone." But Michael Fix proposed the most creative solutions, "One is to create more opportunities for circular migration so workers have a greater incentive to return to their homes in poor economic times, knowing they can re-enter. Another would be to more closely synchronize the United States immigration system to the economy by creating an independent federal agency that adjusts employment admissions in ways that take national and regional economic trends into account."

Conclusion: We are in dire need for both comprehensive labor and immigration reform. Employers need to be held accountable for both who they hire and also how they treat their employees. When laborers are abused, left unpaid or mistreated, we all lose.