Study: Influx of immigrants is overall boost to U.S. workers, economy

Immigrants’ share of the U.S. workforce has grown over the past 20 years, but a new report says those workers have generally benefited native-born workers with higher wages and more opportunities in the long run. (Photo by Jeffrey Beall/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Immigration has risen sharply over the past 20 years and immigrants have accounted for a larger portion of the workforce in that time, but that competition is actually helping Americans in the long run, a new report says.

The report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that immigrant workers in the U.S. – both legal and illegal – have the effect of increasing both wages and jobs for educated native-born workers over a decade or more.

The report, Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration, also found immigrant workers reduce the prices of goods and services in specific industries, including childcare, food preparation and construction.

“Immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth,” said the 509-page report. “The inflow of labor supply has helped the United States avoid the problems facing other economies that have stagnated as a result of unfavorable demographics, particularly the effects of an aging workforce and reduced consumption by older residents.”

While immigrants benefit the economy in the long run, the report did find that there is a short-term cost. First-generation immigrants tend to be more costly to local governments, because they pay fewer taxes, are less educated and earn less. But their children get better educations and grow up to get better jobs, allowing them to contribute more to the economy and make up for the first generation.

The federal economy, meanwhile, benefits from first-generation immigrants because they pay taxes and utilize few federal benefits, such as Social Security and Medicare, since they tend to be younger.

The report estimated that there were a total of 42.3 million immigrants in the U.S. in 2014, up from 24.5 million in 1995.

James Garcia with Promise Arizona said immigrants are entering and filling low-skilled jobs, which leads to an expanded economy overall.

– Cronkite News video by Yeimi Flores

“I’m driving through Chandler, Arizona, and I see … about 25 men,” Garcia said. “These are immigrants who woke up at 5:30 a.m. to stand on the side of the road, hoping that someone in a pickup truck gives them a job for the day.

“It’s just one anecdotal illustration that the kinds of jobs that most of these folks are filling are simply the kinds of jobs that Americans don’t want to do anymore,” he said.

Cornell University Economics Chair Francine Blau, one of the editors of the report, said former immigrants and native-born high school dropouts with similar, low-skill job qualifications are more likely to experience a drop in wages.

“The native supply of workers is slowing,” she said in a conference call on the report’s release last week. “The infusion of immigrants and their children keep the workforce growing.”

While the number of immigrants grew by more than 70 percent over the last 20 years, it has leveled off recently.

But Garcia said the growing anti-immigration narrative has made it difficult to track the true impact that immigration has had on the country.

“It has always been very difficult to come up with precise (immigration) numbers, which creates an opening for anti-immigrant folks to say they’re costing us all sorts of billions and billions of dollars,” he said. “When you have that type of an atmosphere, it just makes it much more difficult to document the types of things that are being discussed in the report.”

Garcia said while native-born high school dropouts are more likely to see wage decreases, those are also the people “who don’t want to fold sheets in a hotel room or stand on a street corner in Chandler, Arizona.”

Juan Padilla took his first job as a hotel worker when he came here from Chihuahua, Mexico, at age 15 in 2000. He has since worked as a dishwasher, a cook, a construction worker and now has a job as a union painter on a job site in Phoenix.

Padilla said immigrants will “do whatever it takes” to obtain a job if the opportunity is available.

“We’re people too, just like any other race, any other human being,” he said. “We all gotta eat. The work is out there, reach for it.”

– Yeimi Flores contributed to this report from Phoenix.