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Immigrants Tend To Complement, Not Replace American Jobs


This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider a plan to overhaul the nation's immigration system. Much of the debate about immigration boils down to a simple economic question: Do immigrants hurt or help those of us who are already here?

Adam Davidson with NPR's Planet Money team has been studying this issue for years. Adam has spoken with many of the economists who've researched the question of immigration's economic impact, and he joins us now from New York. And, Adam, let's cut to the chase. Does immigration help or hurt?

ADAM DAVIDSON, BYLINE: This one's pretty simple. If you talk to most of the leading economists, there's a pretty broad consensus: For the average American, immigration helps. It helps a tiny bit. The average American, by many estimates, is about one percent richer. The idea is that immigrants generally perform roles in our society that we - need to be performed - and very few Americans want to do those roles, and they do them more cheaply. So the average American's dollars go a little bit farther.

CORNISH: Yeah. but doesn't that hurt the people who are already here who would do those jobs?

DAVIDSON: Yes, the one group that may arguably be hurt by immigration, particularly undocumented immigrants, is that group of high school dropouts. And that's not nothing. There's 30 to 40 million of them in the population and, by some estimates, they're maybe seven percent poorer.

But remember, immigrants - documented or undocumented - don't just come here and work . They also spend their money. They go to restaurants. They get haircuts. They buy cell phones. They rent houses. They buy houses. And as a result, they're not just a taker of jobs. They're also a creator of jobs. There's also a fair bit evidence that immigrants, particularly undocumented low-skilled immigrants, don't replace American jobs. They complement American jobs.

CORNISH: And complement in what way? How does that work?

DAVIDSON: Picture like a typical construction site, you know, someone getting their house redone inside or getting a porch put on. What you'll often see is a group of undocumented immigrants doing scut work - doing sweeping up, carrying heavy stuff, setting up the machinery, working alongside either native-born or documented immigrants who are doing the higher-paid skilled work - carpenters, electricians, plumbers, that sort of thing. And the undocumented workers are doing their work for probably less than minimum wage, but a lot more than they make in their home country.

And the idea is if we took away those undocumented workers - those electricians, those plumbers - the person getting the work done would all be worse off. They would have less work. The work would be more costly.

And you see a similar dynamic among working women. There's been some recent economic data that shows that cities that have a higher percentage of immigrants who do homework - like taking care of kids, taking care of elderly relatives - in those cities where there are more immigrants doing those jobs, you see more women going back to the workplace.

CORNISH: Now, you've been talking about undocumented immigrants. What about those here legally?

DAVIDSON: The same basic calculus applies. I mean, generally, undocumented immigrants are low skill, low-wage. And documented immigrants, particularly ones on special visas, tend to be more highly skilled. But by definition, the ones who come in on those skill-based visas tend to be performing functions that we don't have enough people in this country to already perform: doctors, computer programmers, that kind of thing.

So same basic idea. They perform tasks that we don't have a labor market to supply, they do it a little bit cheaper, and it makes us all a bit better off.

CORNISH: But, Adam, what about this recent study from the Heritage Foundation that suggests an immigration overhaul is going to cost the country $6 trillion?

DAVIDSON: I've spent a fair bit of time with this report, and I think it's easy to just dismiss it. It is not a serious work of economic analysis. It is a political document. I mean, just at the top level, it's a 50-year projection. We generally ignore 10-year projections as being hopeless guesses. But 50 years is just utterly meaningless. We don't know what the economy is going to be like in 2063.

Although I will note, even within the 50-year projection, they projected for 13 years, an amnesty program for undocumented workers would be a net benefit for the U.S. economy. They say it only starts really hurting in the 2050s and 2060s, which - I don't know - that's an awful long way away.

CORNISH: I have to say, Adam, usually, you're fairly circumspect, like this kind of, you know, typical of economics, a lot of on the one hand, o n the other hand. But this seems pretty one handed.

DAVIDSON: Yeah. I'd say that the vast majority of economists would agree. Immigration helps the economy more than it hurts. Legalizing the status of immigrants already here helps the economy more than it hurts. Pretty simple.

CORNISH: That's Adam Davidson of NPR's Planet Money team. Adam, thank you.

DAVIDSON: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam Davidson is a contributor to Planet Money, a co-production of NPR and This American Life. He also writes the weekly "It's the Economy" column for the New York Times Magazine.
Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
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