Are Immigrants “Good for the Economy”?

U.S. progressives have expressed a great deal of concern about the effects of anti-immigrant hysteria in the general population, from criminal attacks on immigrants to vicious legislation like Arizona’s SB 1070.  But instead of just condemning the hysteria, maybe we need to ask ourselves what we’ve been doing to counter it.

Not very much, according to one experienced immigrant rights organizer.  “I feel like the immigrant rights movement has gotten really good at communicating to elected officials, to immigrants themselves, and to people that nominally care about immigrants,” Subhash Kateel, a statewide organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, wrote on the Organizing Upgrade website at the beginning of September.  “However, we have not been able to effectively communicate to people that are legitimately on the fence or falling off the fence to the other side.”

One example, according to Kateel, is “[t]he whole ‘immigrants are good for the economy’ stuff.”

Faced with a barrage of falsehoods about immigrants not paying taxes, draining our healthcare system, and living off welfare, immigrant rights supporters have tried to respond with whatever positive-sounding economic data they can find in the mainstream media or on the web.  But as Kateel points out, this has done little to convince the native born.

I don’t care how good the numbers are, a lot of Americans, even those that would believe it when we are not in a recession, just don’t believe it.  If you work in the construction or restaurant industry, it is really hard to believe that.  I could write a whole article on how our message framing has alienated some folks in African American communities.

The native born have a point.  A lot of the economic material that advocates have been using — with the best of intentions — is in fact very dubious.

Raising Our Wages?

Shortly after Kateel’s article appeared, various progressive sites and lists began carrying a Dissent article by journalist Mark Engler entitled “Labor Day: Immigrants Build the U.S. Economy.”

The occasion for the article was the August 30 release of a summary from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco claiming that “immigrants expand the economy’s productive capacity by stimulating investment and promoting specialization” and that this raised workers’ real yearly wages by an average of $5,100 between 1990 and 2007.

As further evidence of the benefits of immigration, Engler notes that there were few takers for this summer’s “Take Our Jobs!” campaign, in which the United Farm Workers (UFW) offered to help place unemployed citizens in low-wage agricultural jobs.  “[I]immigrants are doing work that others will not,” Engler writes, “and are helping the economy as a whole in the process.”

Engler ends by citing a 2005 New York Times article on the $7 billion or so that undocumented workers are paying into the Social Security system; they are barred by law from getting their investment back when they retire.

“[I]mmigrant workers play an important role in building our economy and bolstering institutions such as Social Security,” Engler wrote.  “In other words, they’re raising your wages and paying for your retirement.”

Unproven Theories

But the evidence for all this is far from conclusive.  The San Francisco Federal Reserve summary, for example, is based on comparisons between economies in different states, a tricky process involving a large number of variables.  Moreover, the author, University of California, Davis economist Giovanni Peri, bases the analysis on his “complementarity” concept; this idea was backed by the Council of Economic Advisers in 2007, but like many other economic theories, it remains to be proven.

And the $5,100 raise that Peri says workers got was in a period when the economy was lifted by the dot-com and real estate bubbles.  Where is that pay hike now?

The idea that “immigrants are doing work that others will not” is equally questionable.  The UFW is certainly correct in saying that most native-born workers won’t take agricultural jobs, not at the current pay levels and working conditions.  But less than 0.5% of the U.S labor force works in agriculture.  What native-born workers are actually concerned about is the presence of undocumented immigrants in the other sectors, especially, as Kateel points out, in construction and food services.

As for the claim that Social Security is being “bolstered” by the money it takes from undocumented workers without intending to pay them back: this assumes that Social Security actually needs bolstering, a myth that the corporate media push as part of their ongoing campaign to grab our pensions through privatization schemes.  There’s no need for progressives to help them in their propaganda.

How Do We Communicate?

Isn’t there also something problematic about leftists cheering because the Social Security system rips off immigrant workers?

In fact, ripping off immigrants is the key to most of the “good for the economy” claims.  The current immigration system uses discriminatory laws and repressive enforcement measures to make undocumented workers accept miserable wages and horrendous working conditions; this in turn drives down wages and conditions for U.S.-born workers.  When the mainstream economists and policy makers say immigrants are “good for the economy,” what they really mean is that the exploitation of immigrants in the current system is good for the economy of the employers and the stockholders — and bad for all the rest of us.

“As organizers we know that exploitation is the problem,” Kateel writes on Organizing Upgrade.  “Exploitation hurts immigrants, hurts non-immigrants, and pits us against each other.  How do we communicate that in a way in which we don’t sound like commies?”

This is where progressives should be focused: not on justifying the current system but on finding ways to discuss economic realities clearly and respectfully with working people.  It’s true that we shouldn’t use a lot of confusing leftist rhetoric, but we don’t help our cause by promoting capitalist economic ideas.  In the third year of the Great Recession, we shouldn’t be talking about which people are good for the economy; we should be talking about how to work together to build an economy that’s good for people.

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007.

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