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Anti-Immigration Group: "They're Taking Your Jobs!"

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), the close-America’s-doors lobby group, has a facile new study that purports to show “there really are no jobs that Americans won’t do.” The fact that this study was produced shows how utterly out of touch with economics CIS is. America’s workforce is 85.3% native-born—it is no surprise that the vast majority of all economic activity is performed by U.S. citizens.

This “news flash” is supposed to demonstrate that because “there are very few occupations that are majority immigrant… the often-made argument that immigrants only take jobs Americans don’t want is mistaken.” But even this misrepresents the point: the fact that some Americans will do these jobs does not at all imply that Americans in general would do all these jobs. Many Americans do work as agricultural workers—37% of the total, in fact—but that doesn’t mean Americans will beat down farmers’ doors looking for jobs if the immigrants left (just that farmers will produce less).

The reality is that as has been shown in restrictionist European countries, some services simply don’t happen at all without inexpensive labor, whereas in America we just pay higher prices for them. That this needs to be pointed out is scarcely believable. If you banish individuals currently providing services, you get fewer services, making us poorer. In New York City in 2012, immigrants owned 70 to 90 percent of all laundry, taxi and limousine, grocery, beauty salon, and day care small businesses. Americans will suffer dramatically from the loss of all these services, particularly poorer Americans who will pay higher prices for these services.

Let’s say we roll back the tides of globalization, and Americans determine to make every snow globe and baseball cap, to sweep ever y floor and pick every watermelon, who will do all of the work that these Americans were doing before? No one, we have forbid such “outsourcing” by law. No, we must furnish every ounce of nourishment ourselves, the protectionist says. And so the total amount of prosperity decreases. Frederic Bastiat explained this many years ago:

It is indubitable that as international barriers force capital and labor in each country into channels where they encounter greater difficulties… the general result must be a diminution in production, or—what amounts to the same thing—fewer goods capable of satisfying the wants of the consumers. Now, if there is a general reduction in the quantity of goods capable of satisfying people's wants, how is the share of the workers to be increased?

Rather than each country doing what they are best at relative to all others, we insist upon doing it all ourselves. Protectionists call this “independence.” A textbook might call it “self-sufficiency.” Reason has another name: “poverty.” What is “subsistence level living” except making and consuming all you produce? It is idiocy clothed in the language of “national sovereignty” and “national independence.”

It is called the Law of Markets, or Say’s Law, after Jean Baptiste Say, the 19th century economist that saw that it is worse for a person to live in a “semi-barbarous town” than London because “in spite of the competition of a hundred dealers in his own line, he might do business on the largest scale. The reason is obvious: he is surrounded with people who produce largely in an infinity of ways.” David Ricardo adds to this insight that when people do what they are best at relative to all others and then trade, both sides benefit—this is called “comparative advantage.” These are fundamental economic principles that CIS apparently rejects.

The economic literature on immigration and wages is unanimous on this point: immigration benefits Americans’ wages in general, with only short-term losses to the lowest skilled workers. This is because it takes time for labor and capital to readjust, but delaying this process punishes everyone in the short-term through lower wages and higher prices, and in the long-term, injures the next generation of low-skilled workers who would have fewer services available to them—indeed, due to income mobility, it hurts the vast majority of this generation who will move from the low-end of the labor market to the highest over the course of their lifetimes.

What about during high unemployment? Don’t immigrants interfere with Americans’ ability to get a job then? Still no, as the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh explains in this this blog post, “If immigrant gains to employment meant a loss for natives, then immigrant net employment and native net employment would move in opposite directions,” but this isn’t what happens. “When natives gain, immigrants gain.  When natives lose, immigrants lose,” Nowrasteh explains. Thus, CIS “fails to show a correlation, let alone causation, between immigration and native unemployment.”

That immigration raises wages and living standards should not surprise anyone. The economics of immigration don’t differ substantial from the economics of reproduction, a fact Adam Smith and John Locke were well aware. If we are to say that new immigrant workers lower wages and living standards, we must also say that each new child that is born will do the same—indeed, because it contributes nothing for its first 16-20 years, it would be prima facie worse than an immigrant.

In other words, unless you believe that working people are bad for the economy. You shouldn’t buy the “taking our jobs” argument against immigration.