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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press What's the Relationship Between Concern About Cheap Foreign Labor and Support for Immigration Reform?

What's the Relationship Between Concern About Cheap Foreign Labor and Support for Immigration Reform?

Thursday, 07 February 2013 05:41

The NYT told readers that a widely expressed concern about losing jobs to "cheap foreign labor .... does not bode well for political support for an amnesty program now being discussed in Washington." It's not clear that this would be the case. One of the factors that reduces the wages of undocumented workers is their legal status. Undocumented workers are likely to get lower pay because they risk deportation if they try to unionize or take other measures to increase their wages and improve their working conditions. If U.S. citizens want to reduce the competition from undocumented workers then they logically should support measures that change their legal status so that they are in a position to increase their wages. 

Comments (5)Add Comment
depends on what type of amnesty program
written by Jennifer, February 07, 2013 9:30
I completely believe that labor would be better off with the current undocumented people allowed to pursue citizenship--as you point out it would make them less vulnerable to many types of abuse. I have never been clear how a guest worker program, which is also often discussed, would benefit anybody. It would seem to me that unless overseen carefully--good luck with that--it would allow employers to do exactly what they want but with legal protection.
you are forgetting Nafta
written by pete, February 07, 2013 11:13
Currently the capital/labor ratio is higher in the U.S. Equilibrium, if allowed, would have either capital flow there, or labor flow here. Prior to Nafta, labor came here, naturally, if in an undocumented fashion. With the prolonged recession, immigration has slowed, and anyway production is up there. Undocumenteds in TX make about $15 an hour on construction. This is more than double the minimum wage, especially since it is after tax, and no payroll deduction. So they actually make more than a lot of U.S. workers, say at Mickey Ds.

I would prefer to have the work done in the U.S., rather than chasing capital to Mexico. Guest worker is what China does e.g., in Shanghai. Essentially, you get a visa to work, and are not necessarily on a path to citizenship. Children born here, of course, are. And since U.S. subsidizes college education, anyone with a college degree should get a permanent work visa too.
written by S.D. Jeffries, February 07, 2013 12:42
When I was a child growing up in Texas, workers came over from south of the border (from as far away as Brazil and Argentina) to do seasonal work. They worked in agriculture planting and harvesting crops, in ranching preparing livestock for market, and as construction laborers for individual projects. When their jobs ended, they would go back home to their families south of the border.

With the repeated crackdowns on immigration over the past forty years, this cross-border flow is no longer possible. Workers can't go home and easily come back for the next season of work. Because returning only for seasonal work in the states became almost impossible, these workers felt they must bring their families with them and remain here. Hence a year-round underground labor force was created.

Between effectively ending the "bracero" program and NAFTA, the U.S. created our current immigration problem for ourselves. All the bracero program needed to continue being successful was a set of regulations on employers to keep seasonal workers from being exploited and abused. NAFTA, of course, did not favor labor on either side of the border, first allowing U.S. companies to chase cheap labor to Mexico, then moving the jobs again to Asia, abandoning both the maquilladoras and the workers who had moved to the border area for the jobs.

Our own immigration policies have provided the perfect example of the law of unintended consequences.
written by watermelonpunch, February 07, 2013 3:30
Our own immigration policies have provided the perfect example of the law of unintended consequences.

I'm no longer convinced of the unintended part.
written by ks, February 08, 2013 6:53
why is it that if I try to purchase illegal drugs the fact that the drugs are illegal ends up driving up the price, while if I try to hire (purchase the labor of) undocument worker the fact that the person is "illegal" drives down the price? There is an interesting political economy story here, how the costs imposed by illegality are passed along from sellers to buyers in one area but not the other.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.