THE BLOG
04/08/2016 05:01 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2017

Immigration is a Win-Win Economic Strategy

Perhaps the most prevalent and persistent myth about immigrants is that they weaken the U.S. economy by taking jobs from qualified native-born workers. This belief is rooted in a zero-sum mentality that imagines all workers in competition for a set number of jobs; however, in reality, employment is influenced by a number of factors including workers' education, location, occupation, experience, age, and mobility. This complex relationship has sparked numerous studies, leading many analysts to agree that immigration has a neutral or net-positive effect on the U.S. economy.

When it comes to finding work, the majority of immigrants do not directly compete with American-born workers. Typically, economists describe the relationship between native and non-native workers as complementary rather than competitive, meaning that lower-skilled immigrant labor boosts productivity and creates higher-skilled positions for U.S.-born workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,
"Foreign-born workers were more likely than native-born workers to be employed in service occupations and less likely to be employed in management, professional, and related occupations and in sales and office occupations." In other words, immigrants often do less prestigious, lower paid jobs than workers born in America.

Even younger, lower-skilled, and lower-educated U.S.-born workers are not necessarily displaced by immigrants with similar profiles. A special report by the Immigration Policy Center concluded that
"Although unemployed native workers who lack a high‐school diploma would seem to be in tight competition for jobs with recent immigrants who have a similar level of education, an analysis of differences between these two groups in terms of where they live, their job experience, and their age shows that they are far from being substitutes for one another." The characteristics of immigrant and native workers vary substantially; thus, they are rarely interchangeable as the myth would lead us to believe.

Despite what the immigration myth tells us, immigrants more likely have a positive impact on the U.S. economy than a harmful one. Daniel Griswold, former director of the Cato Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies, writes: "Even though the number of legal and illegal immigrants in the United States has risen strongly since the early 1990s, the size of the economic underclass has not. In fact, by several measures the number of Americans living on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder has been in a long-term decline, even as the number of immigrants continues to climb."

Recent labor statistics reveal that "on average, immigrants raise the overall standard of living of American workers by boosting wages and lowering prices." While the increase in average wages is low (0.1 to 0.6%), it nonetheless indicates a positive gain. Furthermore, immigrants generate revenue through paying taxes and exercising their buying power. Although many undocumented workers pay lower taxes because they work off the books, they spend money in local economies and would pay a fairer share of taxes if employers were no longer allowed to exploit their cheap labor. Ending their exploitation could subsequently translate to improved wages and living standards for all workers.

While opponents of immigration claim that foreign-born laborers endanger the U.S. economy and job market, empirical data suggest that "the workers who stand to lose the most from new immigration are those workers most suitable for new immigrants, namely earlier immigrants." American-born workers no doubt face challenges finding and maintaining employment, but those setbacks are more often linked to lower educational achievement and a decline in blue-collar jobs than to immigration.

Encouraging a complementary rather than competitive relationship between foreign- and native-born workers goes a long way toward bolstering both groups' economic status; in short, immigration is a win-win economic strategy.