Immigration, Poverty and Low-Wage Earners: The Harmful Effects of Unskilled Immigrants on American Workers (2011)

The full report is available in pdf format.


Executive Summary

Today’s immigration system is dysfunctional because it is not responsive to the socioeconomic conditions of the country. Only a small share of legally admitted immigrants is sponsored by employers while the bulk are admitted because of family ties to earlier immigrants who may be living in poverty or near poverty. As a result, immigration contributes to an already-existing surplus of low-skilled workers, increasing job competition and driving down wages and conditions to the detriment of American workers. The presence of a large illegal workforce perpetuates a vicious cycle as degraded work conditions discourage Americans from seeking these jobs and make employers more dependent on an illegal foreign workforce. America’s massive low-skill labor force and illegal alien population allow employers to offer low pay and deplorable conditions.

These harmful effects of the immigration system were recognized in the reports of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in the mid 1990s. The Commission’s immigration reform recommendations were welcomed by President Clinton and submitted to Congress, but have largely been ignored since then. Conditions for America’s poorest workers have continued to deteriorate because of both illegal and legal immigration. Reform of the immigration system to assure that it does not harm Americans and instead contributes to a stronger more equitable society is long overdue. The reforms that are needed include ending family-based chain migration and unskilled immigration, ending the job competition for America’s most vulnerable citizens by curtailing illegal immigration and unskilled legal immigration, and holding employers accountable for hiring illegal workers.

The U.S. has a responsibility to protect the economic interests of all of its citizens, yet the immigration system, which adds hundreds of thousands to the labor force each year, is bringing in workers faster than jobs are being created. Moreover, only a small portion of admissions are based on skills or educational criteria, creating an enormous glut of low-skilled workers who struggle to rise above poverty. In 1995, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform recommended curtailing family-based immigration and replacing the “failed and expensive regulatory system [for skill-based immigration] with one that is market-driven.” Along these lines, the Commission recommended that, “it is not in the national interest to admit unskilled workers” because “the U.S. economy is showing difficulty in absorbing disadvantaged workers.” Fifteen years later, U.S. politicians continue to ignore these recommendations, bowing to corporate demands for unskilled labor rather than taking a realistic look at immigration’s effect on poverty and the American worker.

Current calls for “comprehensive immigration reform” are nothing short of a push for a massive amnesty that would give permanent status to millions of illegal aliens who are not needed in the workforce, and it would reward unscrupulous employers who profited from hiring illegal workers, providing them with a legal low-wage workforce that would continue to have a negative impact on native workers. The border is not secured and there is much opposition to the mandatory use of E-Verify and interior enforcement. Those who argue against enforcement are not going to decide overnight to support these measures, and politicians have long ago proven that their promise to enforce immigration laws after granting amnesty are not to be believed.

This report contains the following findings:

  • In 2009, less than 6 percent of legal immigrants were admitted because they possessed skills deemed essential to the U.S. economy.
  • Studies that find minimal or no negative effects on native workers from low-skill immigration are based upon flawed assumptions and skewed economic models, not upon observations of actual labor market conditions.
  • There is no such thing as an “immigrant job.” The reality is that immigrants and natives compete for the same jobs and native workers are increasingly at a disadvantage because employers have access to a steady supply of low-wage foreign workers.
  • Low-skilled immigrants are more likely than their native-born counterparts to live in poverty, lack health insurance, and to utilize welfare programs. Immigrants and their children made up 32 percent of those in the United States without health insurance in 2009.
  • Research done by the Center for American Progress has found that reducing the illegal alien population in the United States by one-third would raise the income of unskilled workers by $400 a year.
  • Defenders of illegal immigration often tout the findings of the so-called Perryman Report to argue that illegal aliens are responsible for job creation in the United States; yet, if one accepts the Perryman findings as true, that would mean that only one job is created in the United States for every three illegal workers in the workforce.
  • It is true that if the illegal alien population decreased the overall number of jobs in the U.S. would be reduced, but there would be many more jobs available to native workers — jobs that paid higher wages and offered better working conditions.


May 2011