A brief analysis of the new NAS report on immigration economics

Tom Edsall of the New York Times wrote a column today which nicely summarizes the 500 page report issued last week, “The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration,” by the National Academies of Science. He include this quote to show that the report is decisively positive about the economic consequences of immigration:

“Immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth. The inflow of labor supply has helped the United States avoid the problems facing other economies that have stagnated as a result of unfavorable demographics, particularly the effects of an aging work force and reduced consumption by older residents. In addition, the infusion of human capital by high-skilled immigrants has boosted the nation’s capacity for innovation, entrepreneurship, and technological change.”


Why have immigrants at all?

How countries select among types of immigrants is one way to address the question, why do countries accept immigrants at all? Based on actual migration patterns, the reason is primarily to add to the workforce, secondarily for other purposes.

There are four countries conceived as immigrant-based: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. In 2006, the first three accepted on average as permanent residents the equivalent of 1% of their population. Work-based immigration, awards based primarily on worker skills, was one third of one percent of the population. Assuming a workforce of 50% of the total population, that comes to 0.67% of the workforce.

The United States admitted the equivalent of 0.4% of its population. Work-based legal immigration (based on skills) was equivalent to 0.06% of the workforce – one tenth the rate of the other three. Assuming that illegal immigration, averaging 2000 – 2015, was 300,000 a year, and that 75% of illegals worked, the illegal workforce addition was three times the number of permanent awards for legal workers.

This disparity between the United States and others is the greater share of permanent award to families. The U.S awards 70% of permanent status to family member. Many of these family awardees do work, but they are not awarded on the basis of skill. Assuming that half of these immigrants work, that comes to a total of 75,000 legal work-based, and 400,000 new legal workers and 225,000 illegal workers, for a total workforce gain of 700,000.

Proposals to shift to a more skill-based system, combined with better enforcement of immigration laws, would make some 800,000-plus skilled based, perhaps half of them skilled workers, the other seasonal or low skilled.

Germany in 2006, with 27% of the American population, made twice our number of skill-based awards.

2006 immigration data from Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny, Beside the Golden Door: U.S. Immigration Reform in a New Era of Globalization, 2010), pg. 57

What Hispanic poultry workers in North Carolina say about their work

From: “Good Job, Bad Job: Occupational Perceptions Among Latino Poultry Workers” —

Immigrant workers frequently take jobs that are physically demanding, provide low wages, and result in injuries (e.g., poultry production and processing). Through a qualitative approach, this paper elicits poultry workers’ evaluations of their jobs and set them in the larger context of their lives.

These poultry production and processing workers were realistic about the good and bad characteristics of their jobs. Across all employers, the characteristics deemed good were benefits, and stability. Stability was the most valued characteristics for poultry production and processing work. The literature consistently indicates that those who perceived their jobs to be secure report higher levels of job satisfaction, and lower levels of psychological stress.

This study further validates these findings by showing that poultry production and processing workers are satisfied with their jobs because they offer them stability, particularly compared to other options largely held by Latino immigrant workers (e.g., construction, farm work). Fringe benefits are positive and significant determinants of job satisfaction. Workers who would otherwise have limited access to health insurance describe this characteristic of the job as a valuable one. Good pay was also valued as a job characteristic, but only the employees of one poultry processing company consistently reported receiving good pay.

To these workers, poultry processing has relatively good wages compared to other jobs. Lastly many of the workers see this secure job as an opportunity to provide their children and their family with the “American Dream,” including access to valued outcomes such as education, a house, and financial security.

In opposition to these good job characteristics, these poultry production and processing workers understood that the physical and social environments of their work were bad and could result in poor physical and mental health. They understood that the negative health consequences of these jobs were chronic as well as immediate…These poultry production and processing workers know the causes of ill health (repetitive motions, speed of the line, use of tools such as knifes and scissors, pain in the back from bending down, and concern for the strong odors and dust), and that changing jobs would relieve their pain and other symptoms, but keep to their jobs because the positive characteristics apparently outweigh the negative.

The 65 participants interviewed in western North Carolina were between the ages of 18 and 68 years, with a mean age of 37 years. A little over half (54%) of the participants were men. The majority of the workers were from Mexico (51%) and Guatemala (42%),with the remainder from other Central American countries. Time worked in poultry ranged from 2 months to 20 years, with an average of 6 years.

Good Job, Bad Job: Occupational Perceptions Among Latino Poultry Workers. Dana C. Mora, MPH,Thomas A. Arcury, PhD, and Sara A. Quandt, PhD


The home care workforce and immigrants

Maids, house cleaners, child care workers, and personal aides – domestic workers, or the home care workforce — support the quality of life of middle class America. They are the face of foreign, and often unauthorized, workers the middle class depends upon enough to trust young children and the aged with.

In 2012, there 4.3 million persons were employed in these jobs, of which 32% were filled by foreign-born workers; in 2022, 5.2 million are projected to be employed. About 90% of job holders are female. Personal care aide jobs are increasing at an annual rate of 4.9%, which far exceeds the growth rate of any other major occupation.

Among the largest 23 jobs paying under $25,000 annually, personal care aide job growth through 2022 will be by far the largest – 500,000. The home care workforce in total will account for one of every three to five new jobs under $25,000, and may account for half the new jobs below $25,000 that are conventionally female-dominated.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance made these estimates in 2015 for domestic workers, based on interviews —

Percentage foreign born: 46%. In contrast, 16% of the entire workforce is foreign born. Of those foreign born what percentage undocumented: 47%. For the entire immigrant workforce, about one third are undocumented. Percentage Latino/a: 60%. In contrast, 16% of the entire workforce is Latino/Hispanic.

PHI defines the home care workforce somewhat differently than does the Alliance. PHI applies somewhat different job categories.

The Census estimated in 2012 that their annual income averaged $19,500. PHI estimates that the actual total annual income is closer to $13,500. The Alliance reported a gradient in pay, with citizens being paid $12 and hour vs. $10 an hour for foreign-born. PHI reported that in the past decade wages have stuck at $10 an hour. See this week’s New York Times article on personal aides to the aged.

The home care workforce is broadly excluded from non-wage work benefits and job protections. The Alliance reports at less than 9% work for employers who pay into Social Security. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 excluded domestic and farm workers from coverage by the act. That was partially corrected for domestic workers in 2013.

State workers’ compensation, labor protection and unemployment compensation programs originally excluded these workers.

Many home care workers do not qualify as “employees” so even if protections and benefits are extended, that will not affect many of these workers.

A graph showing the Obama administration’s enforcement of immigration law

If anyone thinks with Donald Trump that the administration has been lax in enforcing the laws, this page shows that enforcement is so high that there is a backlog of a half million cases at immigration courts.

More details:

The number of judges continue to prove insufficient to handle the growing backlog in the Immigration Courts. The problems are particularly acute for handling even priority cases like those involving unaccompanied children and women with children according to the latest court data updated through the end of August 2016 and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

The backlog of pending cases involving unaccompanied children reached 73,649 at the August 2016, while the backlog of cases involving women with children is even larger and rose to 83,949 last month. Together they now account for nearly one third (31%) of the court’s overall backlog of a record 512,190 cases.

Pew Research Center reported in August, 2016, that The Obama administration deported 414,481 unauthorized immigrants in fiscal year 2014, a drop of about 20,000 (or 5%) from the prior year, newly released Department of Homeland Security data show. A total 2.4 million were deported under the administration from fiscal 2009 to 2014, including a record 435,000 in 2013, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the data. 2014 is the latest year for summary statistics, apparently.

The Bush Administration averaged somewhat over 200,000 deportations per year.


Proposal: a new bilateral worker agreement between U.S. and Mexico

The Center for Global Development called on September 13 for a creation of a new bilateral worker agreement between Mexico and the United States. Co-chairs of the Working Group that produced the proposal, Shared Border, Shared Future are Carlos Gutierrez, U.S. Secretary of Commerce 2005 – 2009 and Ernesto Zedillo, President of Mexico, 1994 – 2000.

The report authors argue that a circular flow of Mexican workers across the border has been a feature for some 150 years, makes economic sense for the labor markets for both countries, and workers can be better off for it, provided effective measures to control exploitation. Since 1964, with the termination of the so-called Bracero program, the black market has naturally grown. The authors estimate that without a bilateral agreement, 100,000 illegal entries into the U.S. will persist. Border crackdowns in the 1990s interrupted the return flow.

They write that low skilled Mexican workers in the U.S, are mostly complementary to, and not competitive with, native-born workers. The authors cite several flaws with the Bracero program and/or current temporary worker programs in which low wage Mexican workers participate (mainly the H-2A visa):

  • Labor organizations not involved in design
  • Employment tied to single employer
  • No effective way to complain about labor violations
  • Arbitrary restriction to certain employment sectors (to favor American corporate farms)
  • Arbitrary and rigid numbers of visas.

Their recommended program includes oversight by a bilateral labor market commission, better job matching data, employer fees to obtain workers, protections to ensure that native-born worker wages are not undercut, and better controls and incentives to ensure return to Mexico. The report includes model legislative language.

Expanding exposure to immigrants, 1990 to 2014

An extraordinary aspect of American life has been the rapid demographic expansion of the immigrant presence in the past 25 years.

The Center for Immigration Studies published today maps showing by county 1990, 2000 and 2014 the immigrant share of adult population, in five categories (lowest, under 4.9%; highest, over 20%). Maps also show the percentage increase in immigrant share (lowest, <5%; highest, over 300%). Point your cursor on a county and a detailed profile of immigrants comes up.


In 1990, immigrants were at least 20% of the adult population (18-plus) in just 44 counties; by 2014 they were at least 20% of the adult population in 152 counties.

In 1990, only one out of eight Americans lived in a county in which at least 20% of adults were immigrants; by 2014, nearly one in three Americans lived in such counties.

Since 1990, the immigrant share of adults has more than quadrupled in 232 counties. (These counties mostly had 1990 immigrant shares of 1 – 3%).

Where this expansion grew on a very old foundation, such as in New England, there has been little if any push-back from native-born Americans. Where an immigrant population was very small at the outset, push-back has probably been concentrated. This is particularly so where a large undocumented immigrant population rose to high visibility.

An example of this dynamic is California vs. Arizona. Activists against undocumented immigrations arose in the 1980s. In California, where immigration is deeply rooted, involving many sources such as Japan and Armenia, activists only succeeded in swinging the state from Republican to Democratic in the 1990s. Arizona has been the most aggressive of states in repeatedly passing statutes and a constitutional amendment restricting undocumented immigrants with no serious political penalty.

Why did we get so many illegal residents?

There are two answers, one on border control, the other on weak internal enforcement due to the fact that immigration law is federal, but enforcement is local.  It did not matter which political party was in control of the Executive Branch or of Congress.

Between 1990 and 2000 the illegal population grew from 3.5 million to 8.6 million, or by over 5 million. The illegal population peaked in 2007 at 12.2 million. About two thirds of illegal immigrants in the U.S. come from Latin America, and possibly 75% of illegal Latin American immigrants arrived by crossing the Mexican-American border without authorization. These estimates suggest that that during the 1990s, illegal Mexican border crossings into the U.S. were in the range of 250,000 or more a year. Taking into account some out-migration, and the uncertainty of all these estimates, an annual inflow in the 1990s of 250,000 over the Mexican border is conservative.

The pressing question is, Why did immigration control fail in the 1990s, and to such degree that even after 9/11 the borders remained porous? Aside from the pull of employers in the U.S. and the push of Hispanics seeking a better job, why did control of migration fail so miserably, especially after passage of the 1986 Immigration and Reform Control Act, which was supposed to have put the problem of illegal immigrants under control?

Border control

Douglass Massey’s writings with co-authors explain why the borders remained leaky even after Washington appears to redouble efforts to improve control. A 1997 presentation by Douglass Massey and Audrey Singer, concluded that “Despite the apparent build-up of enforcement resources along the Mexico-U.S. border and the launching of highly publicized initiatives, the probability of apprehension fell in the late 1980s.”

A federal website relates that “Operation “Hold the Line” was established in 1993 in El Paso, and proved an immediate success. Operation “Gatekeeper” was implemented in 1994, and reduced illegal entries in San Diego by more than 75% over the next few years.”  But total figures contradict this sunny assertion.

In the early 1970s, the chances of being caught by border enforcement was 35%-40% per attempt, but by the early 1990s the chances were 15%-20%. At this low risk, the cat-and-mouse game was tilted in favor of the border-crossers, whether with coyotes or unassisted.

Massey and Singer find that the Immigration and Naturalization Services was focused on drug smuggling in the 1990s. That was the decade prison sentencing turned more severe for drug crimes.

Tougher border control did, however, reduce the once fluid circular movement of Hispanics back to south of the border, as persons already in the U.S. became more worried about being able to return north.

In 1998, 278 million people, 86 million cars, and four million trucks and rail cars entered the United States from Mexico. More than half of the cocaine and large quantities of heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine entered the United States across the border.

The authors wrote in 1997 that “INS efforts to build goodwill and garner political support by joining the popular war on drugs have not noticeably slowed the entry of controlled substances, but they have greatly facilitated the entry of undocumented migrants by shifting scarce enforcement resources away from catching undocumented migrants toward intercepting drug smugglers.” With a lowered capture rate, Hispanic gained more experience in the cat-and-mouse game; success at crossing over led to more success.

Internal enforcement

A new book, Policing Immigrants, examines the actual practices of state and local police in enforcing federal immigration law far away from the border. There is no federal police force assigned to enforce immigration laws (or any laws, for that matter). How immigrant laws are enforced is subject to a patchwork of policy, legislation and enforcement. “Standards are unclear, and guidelines for enforcing immigration law are changing and often vague,” the authors write. On top of which, the concept of community policing, which places a very high value on trust between local police forces and the community of residents, is extremely hard to square with immigration law enforcement.

It was not until 1997, with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, that there was statutory support for the federal government to formally authorize local police departments to participate in joint training, planning and application of the laws. The risks of misadventure are high, demonstrated by the Maricopa County, AZ sheriff Joe Arpaio, who raided a city hall without notifying local police in advance, and using a state law aimed at human smugglers to arrest the clients of smugglers.

A Value-Added Immigration Policy, such as Canada’s

Ray Marshall, President Carter’s Secretary of Labor, wrote an analysis of how the United States could create a coherent immigration policy in part borrowing on the work of Canada, Australia and Great Britain. Here are passages from the preface (Value-Added Immigration, Economic Policy Institute, 2011).

For most countries, these foreign worker flows are designed to overcome domestic labor shortages associated with economic development; aging populations; declining birth rates; the tendency of people with rising incomes to avoid menial, low-status work; and global skill shortages associated with technological and organizational changes.

Advanced liberal democracies such as Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom have, in addition, supported their value-added economic agendas with complementary migration policies, including a shift in emphasis from family-based to employment-based migration; a greater emphasis on skilled migration; and the development of metrics, structures, and mechanisms designed to efficiently and flexibly adjust the flow of foreign workers to domestic labor shortages. Consistent with both political necessity and value-added principles, these countries have complemented foreign worker adjustment mechanisms with a variety of safeguards to prevent the depression of domestic wages and working conditions or the displacement of domestic workers. These labor protections also are compatible with the value-added principle that foreign workers should complement and not compete with domestic workers; adherence to this principle simultaneously garners greater public support and creates mutually beneficial or plus-sum outcomes.

The United States, like Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, is an immigration nation, increasingly dependent on migration for its economic and social welfare, but it has immigration policies that are almost universally regarded as dysfunctional. The United States does not have a guiding national economic policy for the flow of foreign workers, with the predictable outcome of an immigration system that depresses wages and working conditions and accelerates growing income inequalities; it does not adjust the flow of foreign workers to measured labor market shortages; it has almost no reliable data to measure the number and characteristics of migrants, their social and economic impacts, or chances of success in domestic markets, or to determine whether foreign workers compete with or complement domestic workers; it has no high-level federal official primarily responsible for employment-based migration; it has the largest unauthorized migration levels in the industrialized world; and it does too little to protect either foreign or domestic workers or the national interest.

If undocumented farm workers gained legal status…

Roughly 3.2 million persons work on farms, most part time One million of them are hired workers (i.e. not members of an operating family). They are largely full time and account for 60% of labor hours on farms. Most are foreign-born, and many of them are undocumented. Perhaps 150,000 undocumented persons work full time on California farms. (Go here and here.) This is by far the greatest concentration of undocumented workers, within one industry and one state. They are about 8% of the undocumented workforce in California and 1% of the state’s entire workforce.

(The undocumented workforces in construction labor and housekeeping are larger but they are scattered throughout the country.)

What would happen if these California workers, who earn about $10 an hour, gained legal status? Philip Martin on the University of California /Davis considers the impact on wages. It’s likely that (1) they will demand higher wages and (2) consider better jobs off the farm, thus reducing the farm labor pool. (Go here and here.)

When the Bracero program ended in 1962, the United Farm Workers union won a 40% wage increase for some table grape workers. Assuming that these newly enfranchised workers win a similar wage increase, Martin estimates that the price of a pound of apples would increase by 4%. Per Martin, 40% increase in farm labor costs translates into a 3.6% increase in retail prices, costing households not much but raising the annual income of the workers from $10,000 to $14,000.