Immigration Policy After the Midterm Elections

Liberal supporters of comprehensive immigration reform have long maintained that foreign-born workers, both legal and illegal, don’t take jobs from native-born workers. And numerous studies have shown that immigration is a net-plus for the US economy and, indirectly at least, seems to improve the status of native-born workers.

But a new report issued by the non-partisan and highly respected Pew Hispanic Center casts fresh doubt on this thesis. Its release is likely to help immigration hard-liners in the new Republican-controlled Congress resist pressure from Democrats to pass a legalization program and other immigrant-friendly measures.

The report, released October 29, analyzed goverment employment data from the second quarter of this year. It found that native-born workers lost 1.2 million jobs, compared to the same period in 2009, while foreign-born workers gained 650,000 jobs, or just over half that same number. All of this occurred while the national jobless rate – measured by the numbers of persons applying for unemployment – held steady at just under 10%.

In fact, the numbers would have been even worse if Pew had chosen a different time frame for comparison. During the second quarter of 2010, the government temporarily hired at least 100,000 Census workers, and their numbers were included in the report’s figures for native-born workers.

Take one sector of the economy: personal and household services. Pew found that Hispanic native-born workers gained 10,000 jobs, but Hispanic foreign-born workers, some of whom are almost certainly in the US illegally, gained more than three times that number. By contrast, native-born non-Hispanics in personal and household services lost a whopping 113,000 jobs, Pew found.

Pro-immigration analysts have long disputed the idea of a simple “zero-sum” trade-off between jobs lost by native-born workers and those gained by the foreign-born. The two groups, they say, are generally concentrated in different sectors of the economy, and even within the same sector, they tend to perform different kinds of jobs.

But the two groups do compete directly in sectors like construction where Pew found that native-born employment had fallen precipitously while that of foreign-born workers, especially Hispanics, had climbed. Construction is considered a priority growth industry, and prior to the current recession, was projected to add some 250,000 new jobs by 2015.

Who’s right? Report co-author Rakesh Kochar says the real issue isn’t so much job competition as wage competition. Foreign-born workers are often willing to do the same jobs for less, and they’re also willing to travel further to get them. But if true, that means immigration is not only displacing US workers, it’s also depressing domestic wage rates. That may help the US economy overall, but it’s clearly no boon to American workers.

The release of the Pew report couldn’t come at a worse time for immigration advocates. The new House Republican majority assumes control of the powerful Judiciary Committe and its subcommitte on immigration in January. GOP immigration “hawks” like Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and Rep. Steve King of Iowa likely to become their respective chairmen. Both men have spent months attacking Democrats for advocating a legalization program when so many native-born workers are out of work. Now they’ll be in a position to set the nation’s immigration agenda.

Release of the Pew Report is also likely to bolster the position of immigration “restrictionists” who not only oppose a legalization program but also want to see overall US immigration levels, including legal immigration, reduced. More visas for high-tech workers and the introduction of an economy-wide “guest-worker” program, two measures that the US business community is demanding as part of comprehensive immigration reform, could be in serious jeopardy now.

In the short term, though, expect Smith and his cronies to try to pass a highly controversial – and possibly unconstitutional – ban on birthright citizenship for illegal immigrant children, which could make the current dispute over Arizona’s new enforcement law seem, by comparison, like a minor skirmish.

It’s unclear whether former immigration moderates like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who helped stoke GOP support for the citizenship ban, but who previously worked with Democrats on comprehensive reform, will now seek to temper or inflame his party’s excesses. John McCain, Graham’s mentor, and the former reigning Republican moderate on immigration, is considered a lost cause despite having just coasted to re-election.

Democrats, meanwhile, are certain to push President Obama to exercise his veto power to defeat Smith’s new measures and to try to force the Republicans to negotiate over a broader reform bill. And don’t forget: in late 2011, the 2012 presidential campaign clock starts ticking. However they face off initially, neither party can afford to appear unwilling to help resolve one of the nation’s thorniest and most volatile policy issues. Voter disgust with legislative gridlock, and Latino discontent with a continuing lack of progress on legalization, especially, could well push the two sides to the bargaining table.

But in the current conservative-dominated climate, advocates shouldn’t be too sanguine about what’s likely to emerge policy-wise. The best they can probably hope for is GOP acquiescence in a partial legalization program like the Dream Act in exchange for Democratic support for expanded border controls and a new workplace verification system to tighten the enforcement noose in the interior still further.

That’s a far cry from the expansive immigration reform agenda Obama and the Democrats promised to support when they took power in 2008, which, after last Tuesday’s GOP smackdown, is beginning to seem like ancient history.

STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based immigration policy specialist.  He can be reached at


Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at