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