Saturday, September 19, 2020


Article Index

A. They Take Jobs from Unemployed Americans!

There is a renewed debate over whether undocumented immigration has a positive or negative effect on the economy of the United States. This debate is partly fueled by uncertainty and unawareness. The differences between native-born citizens and undocumented immigrants are often obvious. There are differences in culture, language, and education. In reality, these differences benefit the economy because instead of these two groups competing against each other, they complement each other.

Recently, Alabama enacted perhaps the most strident state immigration law to date. The passage has led to an exodus of immigrant workers, both undocumented and resident aliens who fear being jailed if they cannot convince police authorities of their lawful status. Many business people in the housing and agricultural arenas questioned the legislative wisdom. First, many Americans do not care for the back-breaking and menial salaries for working in the tomato and other agricultural harvest. Second, the 2011 tornados which razed several cities, including Tuscaloosa, created the need for workers to rebuild.

In March 2005, there were approximately 7.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. This amounts to 4.9 percent of the 148 million workers in the nation. While the percentage of undocumented immigrants participating in the labor force is small, a common misconception is that they take our jobs! A majority of undocumented workers take low-wage and low-education jobs in employment sectors like construction, the service industry, production, installation, repair, and agriculture.

Immigrants are different from native-born workers in various ways. Generally, undocumented workers are younger, dominant in a language other than English, and unfamiliar with American culture. In addition, an estimated 32 percent of undocumented workers enjoy less than a ninth grade education. In contrast, among unemployed Americans, only 1.3 percent have less than a 9th grade education. An additional 17 percent of undocumented immigrants have attained an educational level between the 9th and 12th grades, but they have not graduated from high school.

The Urban Institute reported in March 2007 that there was a 6 percent drop in the number of native-born adults without high school diplomas between the years 2000-2005. This percentage is offset by a 22 percent increase of undocumented immigrants without a high school diploma. This study determined that the overall U.S. labor force is becoming better educated, despite the entry of so many less-educated immigrants. These differences between undocumented immigrants and native-born individuals explain what leads each group to search for jobs in different levels of the market.

A study conducted by the Center for American Progress found that it is highly unlikely that native-born Americans can fill the jobs held by undocumented workers. It is argued that if undocumented workers were taken out of American society, more low-skilled jobs with higher wages would become available for native workers. In fact, data indicate that the result would actually be a major shock to the economy, resulting in a shortfall of approximately 2.5 million low-skilled workers. This shortage of workers would hurt industries like agriculture, domestic services, and construction where the undocumented laborer is concentrated.

Economists point to two important facts that lead to the need for undocumented or at least some form of immigrant workers. First, the undocumented worker is supplying a skill level that is much in demand. Second, most Americans are too educated to work as chambermaids, roofers, and agricultural workers. The added diversity to the workforce of complementariness of skills is good for the economy as a whole because the undocumented immigrant performs services that would otherwise be more expensive or unavailable. Industries like lawn services and nail salons have led to increased use of these providers, services that were once only available to the wealthier Americans.

An example of this phenomenon of labor concentration occurred in the agricultural market. In 2004, a crackdown on illegal immigration resulted in a shortage of workers in the lettuce fields located in the Western region of the United States. This shortage of labor resulted in a $1 billion dollar loss to the lettuce industry when the fields remained un-harvested. Raising wages was more costly to the growers then leaving their crops to rot. Even in Vermont, there is a need for foreign workers. The Governor of Vermont, James Douglas, commented in 2006 that undocumented aliens work the dairy farms of Vermont, and he quickly added that they address a severe farm labor shortage in the state. State agriculture officials estimate the number at 2,000.

The agriculture industry is one that has grown on the backs of the undocumented. The industry, driven by a need for seasonal labor, uses a workforce that is a little more than one-half undocumented. The average hourly wage of agricultural field workers, $9.06, has remained at approximately 50 percent of the average wages of production workers in the non-farm sector. Recently Alabama enacted one of the most restrictive immigration laws aimed at punishing employers for hiring undocumented workers. It has been reported that this immigration law has resulted in a significant shortage of legal workers creating serious problems to the Alabama economy.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law