FactCheck.org has an excellent item on the immigration/wages connection. It’s difficult for me to think of an issue where there’s a better gap between the academic research and popular understanding. But as FactCheck explains, there’s a nearly universal consensus in the literature that immigration grows the economy and increases both average wages (as in higher wages on average) and the wages of the average American worker (as in the median goes up). Many studies also find a negative impact on the wages of people who don’t have a high school degree, although some researchers dispute even that. What’s more, the negative impact appears to be particularly concentrated on the wages of other immigrants.
If you try to think about it for a moment or two, you should see that these are all pretty intuitive findings. If two percent of the population was irrevocably teleported at random to Mexico on Monday morning, that would lead to a decline in overall living standards. It’s true that if this were a peasant society with a fixed supply of arable land and 80 percent of the population working in agriculture that things might look different, but that’s not the case. Even “unskilled” people have some skills, and adding to the pot makes us better off, especially because some “unskilled” people actually possess skills that are quite rare—cities with lots of Mexican immigrants have, for example, good Mexican food. But cohorts of immigrants have very similar skills to each other so pulling up the gate might help recent Mexican immigrants.
But of course when you look at the politics of this issue, none of this is reflected. The people clamoring to “control the border” aren’t recent low-skill immigrants from Mexico. It’s very rarely native born high-school dropouts either. Rather, the people upset about immigration tend to be white high school graduates, a group that has a lot of conservative opinions about many issues but generally benefits from high levels of immigration.