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Sustainable Immigration (part 2 of 4): The Middle Class

author Published by Jeremy Beck

This is the second of four blogs concerning immigration-sustainability questions policy makers should address.

Part One: American Workers

Part Two: The Middle Class

In 1924, encouraged by labor leaders, Congress reduced
immigration numbers back toward the historical average of 250,000 per
year. After decades of massive population growth, tight labor markets
eventually returned and paved the way for the greatest middle-class
expansion in U.S. history. Employers raised wages, improved working
conditions, and transformed industries like meatpacking into desirable
middle-class jobs.  Then, in 1965, Congress increased immigration again.
By 2007, meatpacking wages had fallen to half of what they had been 30
years before. And for many low-skilled citizens and immigrants, a good
work ethic was no longer enough to sustain a middle-class lifestyle.

Fully addressing the immigration debate
without discussing today’s non-traditional immigration numbers and asking whether they are
sustainable is impossible. Yet Congress rarely talks about the immigration numbers, partly
because the mainstream media does not analyze immigration from a sustainability perspective.

“Are current immigration numbers sustainable for the American middle class?”

The modern era
of mass immigration began with the Immigration and
Nationality Act of 1965, when Congress laid the groundwork for quadrupling annual immigration. In “The Economic Impacts of Mass Immigration into the United States: And the Proper Progressive Response,” Dr. Philip Cafaro of Progressives For Immigration Reform notes that according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. increased its total wealth
by 350 percent since 1965. Yet Census data shows that almost none of the additional wealth lifted poor Americans into the middle class.

played a role in both the expansion of overall wealth (more
people = bigger economy) and in the decline in per capita wealth (the
greater supply of workers, the less demand for wages),
particularly among the most economically vulnerable Americans. Bloomberg
Business Week reports the median wages for men has dropped 27 percent
(“The Slow Disappearance of the American Working Man,”
August, 2011), largely due to wage losses in less-skilled occupations
like construction. Harvard economist George Borjas estimates that immigration alone resulted in a 7.4 percent decline in real-wages for the poorest 10 percent of American workers between 1980 and 2000 (“Increasing the Supply of Labor through Immigration: Measuring the Impact on Native-born Workers” 2004). A 2010 study published in the journal Social Forces, “Latino Employment and Black Violence: The Unintended Consequence of
U.S. Immigration Policy,” by LSU sociology professor Edward Shihadeh and
doctoral student Raymond Barranco found
that immigration policies have flooded low-skill markets, displaced
Black workers, and increased violence in the African-American community.

Immigrants are not to blame for the economic and social inequality
that results from Congress’ mass-immigration policies. According to
government statistics, foreign-born workers earn 22.5 percent less in median wages ($598/week vs. $771/week) than their American-born counterparts.  What we have is a system that exploits foreign-born workers at the expense of American-born workers. This
is nothing new. Samuel Gompers, founder and president of the American
Federation of Labor (AFL), and himself an immigrant offered the same
analysis in a letter to Congress
dated March 19, 1924. Advocating for sustainable immigration policies
in 1924, Gompers could have been writing today when he warned Congress
about “corporation employers who desire to employ physical strength
(broad backs) at the lowest possible wage and who prefer a rapidly
revolving labor supply at low wages to a regular supply of American wage
earners at fair wages.”

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA

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