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Immigration reform hurts U.S. workers

The Senate this week begins debate on the proposed immigration reform bill. If this bill becomes law, there is one likely outcome for low-skilled Maryland workers: disaster.

The assurances of the bill's proponents that the bill will somehow help the economy obscure copious evidence that it will wreak enormous damage to the employment prospects of American workers who have already seen their wages and employment rates plummet.

Indeed, it is no secret that the employment picture for low-skilled workers is abysmal. The national unemployment rate has been above 7.5 percent for more than four years, and millions have dropped out of the workforce entirely. Among those without a high school diploma, the unemployment rate in May reached 11.1 percent, and for blacks without a high school diploma, it is more than 24 percent. The Maryland unemployment rate is a bit less grim at 6.5 percent, but the black unemployment rate is 10.2 percent. The labor-force participation rate is at historic lows, and long-term unemployment is the worst since the Great Depression. The workweek is shrinking, as well as wage rates. Barely one in two adult black males has a full time job. A record 47 million people are on food stamps.

The immigration reform bill has the potential to make things even worse. Not only will the bill grant amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants, it will act as a magnet for future illegal immigration and substantially increase the number of legal immigrants. It is conservatively estimated that the bill will result in 30 million to 33 million additional immigrants over the next 10 years.

The bill is structured so that most of the immigrants will be low-skilled. They will compete with Americans in the low-skilled labor markets. The competition is most fierce in some of the industries in which blacks historically have been highly concentrated, such as construction, agriculture and service. Since the supply of low-skilled workers already exceeds the demand, the massive influx in low-skilled immigrants bodes ill for all such workers, but particularly black males. Evidence adduced before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights shows that immigration accounts for 40 percent of the 18 percentage point decline in black employment rates over the last several decades — the bulk of the decline occurring among black males. That's hundreds of thousands of blacks thrown out of work, who can't support their families without taxpayer assistance.

The evidence adduced by the commission shows that not only does illegal immigration depress the employment levels of low-skilled Americans, it drives down the wages for available jobs. For example, an economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta estimated that as a result of the growth of undocumented workers, the annual earnings of documented workers in Georgia in 2007 were $960 lower than they were in 2000. In the leisure-hospitality sectors of the economy, the wages were $1,520 lower.

A $960 annual decrease in wages may not seem like much to some members of Congress, but as President Barack Obama observed when he signed the extension of the payroll tax cut in 2012, an extra $80 a month makes a big difference to many families. It means $80 more toward rent, groceries and the cost of gasoline. Besides, why should American workers suffer any decline in their wages because of illegal immigration?

Recent history shows that a grant of legal status to illegal immigrants results in a further influx of illegal immigrants who will crowd out low-skilled workers from the work force. Contrary to the mythology promoted by some supporters of the bill, this isn't because low-skilled Americans — regardless of race — are unwilling to work; it's because they're unwilling to work at the cut-rate wages (and often substandard conditions) offered to illegal immigrants, a cohort highly unlikely to complain to government agencies about those wages and conditions. This inexorably increases the number of low-skilled Americans depending upon the government for subsistence, swells the ranks of the unemployed and reduces the wages of those who do have a job.

Before the federal government grants legal status to illegal immigrants, serious deliberation must be given to the effect this would have on the employment and earnings prospects of low-skilled Americans. History shows that granting such legal status is not without profound and substantial costs to American workers.

Does Congress care?

Peter Kirsanow, a labor and employment attorney, is a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and the former chairman of the Center for New Black Leadership. His email is pkirsanow@beneschlaw.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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