Rising wages for the poor? The left’s solution: more immigration


Back when Democrats were the party of the working man, they would have welcomed news that low-wage workers were in a position to demand higher pay.

Not anymore.

Whether under President Donald Trump or in today’s tight labor market, the left’s transformation into the party of large corporations and the professional-managerial class is evident from its discomfort with low-wage workers being able to raise their earnings.

Before COVID, the Trump administration proved we could combine rapid economic growth with reduced immigration — creating a tight labor market in which workers, especially those in the lowest-paying jobs, were able to increase their real (inflation-adjusted) pay for the first time in generations.

The immigrant population continued to grow under Trump, of course, but much slower than under his predecessor. We estimate that the total foreign-born population (legal and illegal) grew by an average of 42,000 a month under Trump before COVID, compared with 76,000 a month during President Barack Obama’s second term.

That slower immigration had tangible results: In late 2019, after 40 years of stagnant or falling real wages, the bottom 10th of workers saw their earnings jump 7% from the year before while full-time workers without a high-school degree got a hefty 9% raise — both far above the low inflation at the time.

COVID crashed all that, but as the economy revived, a tight labor market returned — and with it increased worker power to negotiate for higher pay.

Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump balanced the rapid economic growth with reduced immigration during his administration.
AP/Mark Humphrey

The left was uncomfortable with that worker power under Trump because Orange Man Bad; The New York Times even highlighted “ethical concerns” with black Americans getting higher-wage jobs after an immigration raid removed illegal workers from a Mississippi chicken plant.

The problem today with greater economic power for workers is that it supposedly contributes to inflation (which it somehow did not do under Trump). And the solution? As always, more immigration!

Of course, the main reason for today’s inflation is the federal government printing too much money. Better pay for maids and landscapers plays virtually no role; even huge pay cuts for lower-paid workers through big increases in immigration could have only the most trivial effect on inflation because less-skilled workers just don’t account for very much of gross domestic product.

But that’s not stopping important voices on the left from warning that blue-collar workers have to be put in their place through immigration-driven pay cuts.

University of California economist Giovanni Peri is a favorite of the open-immigration crowd and has made a career of claiming that importing foreign workers has no effect on the earnings of people already here. He says there are 2 million “missing” immigrants who would have been here had immigration not slowed down under Trump and then because of COVID. And the labor shortage caused by those “missing” immigrants is causing wages to go up! But if the lack of immigrants results in higher wages, then their presence must necessarily cause lower wages.

Then there’s the National Immigration Forum, a left-wing pro-amnesty group. It states, accurately enough, “that when businesses struggle to retain and hire workers, they increase wages to become more competitive in the labor market.” It then argues for massive increases in immigration to prevent that, falsely claiming that will tame inflation.

Complaints about increasing pay for workers may be more understandable from Fwd.us, the awkward name of Mark Zuckerberg’s mass-immigration lobby in Washington. It promoted the immigration increases in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better proposal by touting complaints from academics and others about increased worker leverage, quoting one professor who said, “People will bid up wages in order to deal with the shortages of workers.” But again, if less immigration results in higher pay, doesn’t that mean Fwd.us’s frequent assurances that mass immigration doesn’t harm American workers are false?

In fact, immigration-pushers know perfectly well their policies hurt American workers. Former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) confessed in an unguarded moment to a reporter that the arrival of additional immigrant workers is “bad for blue-collars,” but that was OK because it would help elect more Democrats, who would pass bills to help workers (retroactively, I guess).

No one is surprised when the Chamber of Commerce calls for increased immigration to keep American workers down. But when ostensibly pro-worker voices argue the same thing, it’s clear that the left’s animating idea is Immigration Above All Else — whether inflation is high or low, whether there’s a recession or expansion, the solution is always the same: more immigration!

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.



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