Do tighter controls on immigration improve the job market for American workers?
The answer is no, according to research by Josh Silver ’17—at least not in the places where similar restrictions have been tried. Not in the short term, anyway.
In his senior honors thesis, “The Effects of Immigration on Low-Skilled Native Workers in the US,” Silver, who graduated in May with majors in economics and international affairs, took on a hot-button issue in American politics and a ballyhooed pillar of the campaign of U.S. President Donald Trump. Illegal immigration, Trump and other candidates argued in 2016, stymies job growth and drags down wages for workers here legally.
Delving into labor statistics, Silver discovered that two states that cracked down on undocumented workers saw little if any increase in wages, labor force participation, and total employment for low-skilled native workers. These workers never stepped up to fill the positions vacated by deported or unavailable undocumented laborers, and production was disrupted.
“In some cases there was no effect,” Silver says. “In others, wages were lower for native workers as a result of these immigration reforms.”
“Wages are lower, employment opportunities, labor force participation more limited, to the extent that you find anything that’s significant,” says James DeVault, professor and head of economics, who, along with Matthew Larsen, assistant professor of economics, served as Silver’s advisers on the project.
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, Silver compared employment numbers from Georgia and Arizona—two states that have enacted immigration control laws in recent years—to Texas and South Dakota, a pair of states lacking such laws that are similar in industry/sector breakdown and gross domestic product growth trends.
Arizona passed SB 1070 in 2010, the reform regarded as the first of its omnibus immigration laws. In 2011 Georgia passed HB 87, based on Arizona’s bill, “and is often regarded as being even more drastic,” Silver writes in his report. “Both of these reforms share a similar purpose, which is to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants.”
Silver’s work studied industries such as mining, construction, transportation, farming, fishing and forestry, maintenance, and extraction. In all cases, the impact of barring undocumented workers from the labor market had minimal or no effect on wages, labor force participation, and total employment for native-born workers.
Migrant and undocumented workers have vital importance to several industries, DeVault says. For example, in agriculture, they might pick crops—often back-breaking work for little pay. If you remove them from the labor force, native-born workers rarely step up to replace them. The result can be fewer crops harvested, resulting in less work for processors and others involved in food production.
“So all the workers, they’re tied up,” DeVault says. “If you take one piece out, it’s like removing one ingredient from a recipe. You can’t make it any more.”