Immigration and Low-Wage Workers

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The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor

When I wrote yesterday about immigration, naturally some folks in the comments accused me and other immigration-supporters of caring exclusively about the class interests of the wealthy. This is nuts. For one thing, the empirical evidence for an adverse impact of immigration on wages for low-skilled workers is weak even though the theoretical argument is fairly clear—immigrant and non-immigrant labor look to be highly imperfect substitutes, and immigrants do more to lower each other’s wages than anything else. What’s more, as Patricia Cortes points out in her research (PDF) the wage-immigration literature generally neglects the fact that there’s a price element to immigration’s impact on the purchasing power of low-skill native born Americans.

But all that aside, if you’re thinking about ways to boost the prospects of poor Americans, doing it by punishing even poorer Mexicans seems like a uniquely illogical and unappealing way to get the job done. Why not help poor Americans by targeting rich Americans and spreading the wealth around? Or by increasing the number of high-skill immigrants who we let in to offset the distributive impact of low-skill immigration? That leaves everyone better off than they would be in a no-immigration scenario. Flip the script around and imagine a country with no immigrants and no immigration. Now imagine me proposing to help the working class by rounding-up some disfavored 10 percent of the working-class population and deport them to a nearby corrupt and impoverished nation. Would anyone consider that a remotely sensible way to behave?