The Impact of Immigration on Workers in the U.S. – May Not Be What You Think

One of the things we’ve mentioned on here many times is groups need to have facts when solving problems.  Solving problems with what you think you know doesn’t solve the problem.  Sometimes it makes it worse.  It’s the same for any problem including those facing society in the U. S. today.

One of the big concerns people talk a lot about today is immigration.   Some people fear immigrants coming into this country will take jobs away.  They think employers will want immigrants more than them for a variety of reasons including hiring for less wages.

In fact, last week President Trump, in his effort to push “Buy American, Hire American,” signed an executive order on the H-1B Visa program.  The executive order asked four federal agencies to look at the program and provide recommendations for improvement to the program.  A bipartisan group in Congress had already looked at visa programs because of concerns about jobs and immigrants.

But are immigrants and refugees really taking jobs away from native born Americans?  What about these Visa programs?   What about wages?  Are they suppressed because of immigration?

Before we begin to answer those questions, it’s important to address some immigration facts because it does provide some background and perspective to the entire immigration issue.  We break this into three parts about worker status:  legal immigrants, non-immigrants and unauthorized immigrants.

Today the population of the U. S. consists of a little more than 10% of immigrants, a very low portion of the entire U. S. population.  This is a lower rate than many countries.  The U. S. rate is near the middle of the high and low marks.  For immigrants to obtain legal status to work in the U. S., there are certain requirements for them which are found in five different classifications.  The total number of immigrants allowed under employment-based visas per fiscal year is 140,000.  Legal immigrants come from many more countries than they did 50 years ago.  It’s not just a few countries.

As far as non-immigrant status, there are a number of programs that provide visas to this group.  They don’t all require employment, and those that do require employment, don’t necessarily require employers to find U.S. workers first.  Some of the programs also don’t have a cap on the number of applicants. Typical work visas include the “H” category or the H-1B that was highlighted in the Executive Order.   These visas are good for a certain period of time and can be renewed.

Based on a 2012 estimate, there were a little over 11 million unauthorized, or illegal, immigrants in the U. S. which is less than 4 percent of the overall population.  They also represent 5 percent of the number of workers in the U. S.  which is greater than the overall population because most are working age.  The number of unauthorized immigrants has continued to decline since the Great Recession because of increased numbers of border patrols. Many of them do come from Mexico and Central America.  It is important to note this group of people contribute federal and local taxes but do not receive anything back from them.  While they may use fraudulent social security numbers for payroll purposes, they do not receive an income tax refund at tax time like natives receive and they receive no Social Security benefits even though they pay into Social Security. It was estimated in 2005 unauthorized immigrants paid $7 billion in social security taxes which they will never have returned. In addition, there is very little impact on federal, state or local budgets from these people.  As far as taking advantage of public assistance programs, it is possible they could through legalized citizens but they cannot on their own.

So how does this impact native workers and wages?  Two left-leaning think tanks say there is no impact.  Both the Economic Policy Institute(EPI) and Center for American Progress say the impact to native workers is positive.  EPI provides a graph that shows the impact on wages.  The impact to natives is more positive than for immigrants.  It also becomes greater as education levels increase.  The Center for American Progress states each group benefits the other because each has a different skill set so they do different jobs.  When there are jobs and the groups have similar skill sets, both are absorbed into the labor pool because the business expands its operations.  In addition, immigrants help to spur jobs for natives by taking the lesser skilled jobs which leaves the more skilled, higher pay jobs for natives.  The Center for American Progress uses the example of manufacturing.  More manufacturing jobs stay in the U. S. for natives because immigrants are more willing to do jobs associated with manufacturing such as transportation that gets supplies to manufacturers.

It’s also important to remember immigrants, legal or illegal, purchase goods and services while they’re in this country.  Their purchases help to maintain jobs.  According to the Center for American Progress, more immigrants own a home than natives.  When you think about the purchases needed with home ownership, this can include manufactured items that need to be built.  EPI says deporting all illegal immigrants out of the U. S. at one time could have detrimental effects on the economy.

So what about people on the H1-B visa program that was the center of Trump’s Executive Order?  Again, there is a cap on the number of immigrants that can come under this program.  These positions are more highly-skilled positions with college degrees and include professional type  jobs.  EPI lists examples as technology jobs, accountants, healthcare positions and teachers. Immigrants filling these type of positions can stay six years and can be renewed annually.  The employer must be the applicant which is one of the problems with this position for the immigrant.  The immigrant can only stay with this employer and not look elsewhere.  There have been several complaints about employers using the H-1B.  Those complaints include employers replacing higher-wage native workers with lower-wage immigrant workers,  some native workers having to train the lower-wage replacements before they’re actually terminated, and overall lowering wages in the tech industry.  As mentioned before, there have been other governmental attempts to revise the H1-B visa to make it more fair to everyone.

Lastly, a somewhat good story that helps not just immigrants but all workers is something that happened in Wisconsin.  Farmers were having difficulty finding workers for their farms.  Reluctantly, they decided to use labor from Mexico and were pleasantly surprised how well the workers did but there still some problems.  Someone who knew Spanish talked to the workers and found out there were language and cultural differences that were impeding the relationships with their new bosses.  When the interpreter went back to the farmers and told them about the issues, the farmers didn’t understand.  To help the farmers understand better, the interpreter arranged for the farmers to take a trip to the Mexican communities where the workers lived.  When the farmers arrived at the communities, their eyes were opened!  They were nothing like communities in the U. S.  They saw how poor the families were and why it was important for the workers to travel to Wisconsin for work.  The farmers remembered long ago how it was for them when they didn’t have the conveniences they do now in their rural communities.  The farmers then decided to make more trips back to Mexico and with each trip they made, they saw improvements to the small communities where the workers came from.  The farmers realized what a difference they were making for others despite their reluctance to hire them at first.  Now, the relationships between the farmers and the workers is much better.  There is a better understanding between them and the farmers have become more acquainted with the families of the workers and their needs.

The Wisconsin story kind of sums up this relationship between natives and immigrants, workers and managers.  It’s about the truth and having all the facts.  When managers take the time to learn more about their  workers, it helps to improve productivity and the work being done. We blogged before the Market Basket grocery chain and the owner Arthur T. DeMoulas.  Artie T., as the employees called him, knew his employees and that gained their trust, respect, and admiration.

The farmers, too, learned about their employees.  What they thought they knew about them, wasn’t true.  They got the facts.  They saw firsthand what life was like for the immigrants that worked for them..   They were good workers with a need even the farmers could recognize which is nothing different for any immigrant whether they’re trying to take care of their families or escaping war or political strife.

All of this shows how badly we all need FACTS of what is actually occurring instead of relying on rumors, pundits, news events or politicians that scare us.  How can we solve problems if we don’t know the truth and facts?

Two years ago Congress started on immigration reform.  It started in the Senate with Senate Bill S.744.   Unfortunately, the House killed it. One of the things we can do is go back and look at the bill to see what was in it so we have the information and facts.

About CALMC Blog

Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to involving employers and employees to preserve jobs, resolve workplace issues, and promote labor-management cooperation. Visit our website at
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