… Immigration policy has been captured by special interests who peddle the notion that immigration is an unmitigated benefit to the nation and that it is costless. Nothing could be further from the truth. The immigration myth is based on the premise that attention need only be paid to the benefits while the costs can be totally ignored. Only with respect to the formulation of immigration policy is such nonsense tolerated as conventional wisdom.
If the scale of immigration was small—as it was from the 1930s through to the mid-1960s—the nation could live with the myth that immigration yields only benefits. But it is not. In 1965, the foreign-born accounted for only 4.4% of the population—the lowest percentage since such data started being collected prior to the Civil War. The percentage had been falling for over fifty years. By 1997, however, the percentage had risen to 9.7% (plus some unknown additional increment of statistical under-count due to the estimated six million illegal immigrants currently in the country). Until there are legislative changes, the percentage will continue to rise. Thus, about one of every ten Americans in 1997 was foreign-born. In absolute terms, the foreign-born population grew from 8.6 million persons in 1965 to 25.8 million persons in 1997. In the process, immigration has again become a key feature of American life. Indeed, the U.S. Bureau of the Census has projected that immigration will be the most important factor influencing the growth of the American population over the next fifty years. Given its momentum, the welfare of the nation can ill-afford to live with the "unrealistic" immigration myth—no matter how "persistent" and "persuasive" are the voices of its proponents.
The Point of Focus—Although the subject of immigration involves multiple considerations, they all have one common juncture point: the labor market. It is a truism that immigrants must work or they must be supported by those who do. So no matter how many other issues are thrown into the immigration caldron, the critical issue is what are the labor market consequences of what immigration policy produces or tolerates. For it must always be remembered that immigration is entirely a discretionary act. The mass immigration that the United States is currently experiencing is entirely a policy-driven phenomenon. No one has a right to immigrate or to seek refuge in the United States—legally or illegally. The "costs" of immigration need to be taken into account as much as do the "benefits" when it comes to designing the appropriate policy. The concerns of the "losers" are as relevant as those of the "winners." Such is especially the case when those most adversely impacted are the least advantaged persons in the population and labor market.
Labor Market Effects—Due to differences in the age and gender distribution of the foreign-born population from the native-born population, immigrants comprise a larger portion of the labor force than they do of the population as a whole. In 1997, foreign-born workers comprised 11.5% of the U.S. labor force (or almost one of every eight U.S. workers). In absolute numbers, 15.5 million workers were foreign-born. These are big numbers and, when concentrated in specific segments of the labor market, they have significant influences.
As in the past, post-1965 mass immigration is geographically concentrated. In 1997, five states (California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Illinois) accounted for 65% of the entire foreign-born population and 66% of the entire foreign-born labor force. The foreign-born are also overwhelmingly concentrated in only a handful of urban areas—especially in their central cities. These particular labor markets, however, are among the nation's largest in size: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Miami, and Chicago. Collectively, these five cities accounted for 51% of all foreign-born workers. Although somewhat less numerous, immigrants also comprise significant percentages of the labor force of a number of other cities and increasingly in some rural towns.
The most significant labor market characteristic of the foreign-born labor work force, however, is the fact that it is disproportionately characterized by workers with low human capital endowments. The 1990 Census revealed that 25% of foreign-born adults who were twenty-five years and older had less than a ninth-grade
education (compared with only 10% of native-born adults). Moreover, 42% of the foreign-born adult population did not have the equivalent of a high school diploma (compared to 23% of the native-born adult population). Thus, it is the low-skilled, low wage sector of the nation's major urban labor markets that are the most impacted by immigrant job-seekers. Not only do low-skilled immigrants compete with each other for whatever opportunities exist at the bottom of the nation's job hierarchy, but they also compete with the low-skilled native-born workers. Indeed, when the National Research Council (NRC) calculated in 1997 that immigration provides a net "benefit" to the U.S. economy of from $1 to $10 billion a year, the "benefit" was based largely on the result of the wage suppression of the wages of low-skilled workers whose wages are lower than they would have otherwise been. This, of course, is only a "benefit" that an economist can appreciate. It is certainly no "benefit" to low-skilled workers who are already at the bottom of the nation's income distribution. It is an artificially imposed hardship imposed by government policy on native-born low-skilled workers. The only actual wage "benefit" in this process is received by the immigrant workers themselves who typically earn considerably more at the bottom of the U.S. wage scale than they would have earned in his/her homeland. Low-skilled native-born workers lose; low-skilled foreign-workers benefit. Whose interests are U.S. policymakers supposed to protect?