Members Only | October 3, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Hostility toward migrants weakens our reaction to economic shocks

It’s exacerbated a pandemic situation in which inflation and hiring crises in key industries create chaos and uncertainty.


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According to conservatives, immigration is one of the main threats to the US economy. Outsiders entering the US supposedly depress wages and lower the quality of life for people who already live here. 

The solution, they tell us, is to dump endless dollars into policing and border control in order to terrorize and discourage new migrants.

This is all nonsense. In fact, immigrants contribute to economic growth and help to keep the economy stable and strong. 

Criminalizing them, however, creates a class of exploitable workers. That threatens all workers and the country’s economic health.

Immigration policy offers us a choice. Do we want to encourage growth and prosperity for all? Or are we more focused on making sure certain people suffer for having been born in the wrong place?

Despite constant rightwing propaganda about a so-called border crisis and “out of control immigration,” the fact is that the total number of migrants has dropped precipitously over five years.

The decline started with President Trump’s dramatic, sweeping anti-immigration agenda. For the fiscal year ending July 1, 2016, there was net internal immigration to the US of over 1 million. After that, numbers dropped, to about 900,000 in 2017 and 700,000 in 2018.

Then the pandemic hit. Immigration plummeted. 

In part, that was because of further Trump-era restrictions. In part, it was because people were just afraid to travel during the pandemic. 

Net migration went down to 477,000 in 2020, and bottomed out at 247,000 for the fiscal year ending July 1, 2021. As the effect of the pandemic has receded, immigration numbers have rebounded

Green cards for new arrivals were at about 134,000 pre-pandemic. They dropped to a low of 19,000. At the end of 2021, they were up to 105,000. That’s about 78 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

At the end of 2021, one analysis estimated that the US had about 2 million fewer immigrants than it would have had without in the absence of covid. Remember, that came after years of Trumpian immigration restrictions had already reduced immigration inflow. Add in 1 million dead from the covid, perhaps 1.2 million disabled by it and workforce disruptions as people mourn and care for loved ones.

You start to see why there’s been a hiring crisis.

A tighter labor market, partially the result of plummeting immigration numbers, did produce an increase in wage growth, especially in lower wage industries. But for most workers, inflation – driven in large part by energy shocks, but boosted also by hiring gaps and supply-chain problems – has outpaced real wage gains.

There are additional downsides to a labor market in which key industries can’t hire enough workers. The decrease in immigration has been especially damaging in the healthcare industry. 

The American healthcare system is currently experiencing a devastating shortfall of 1.1 million nurses. Not coincidentally, healthcare is an industry especially reliant on immigrants. Twenty percent of nurses, and 25 percent of health aides, are immigrants. 

Staffing shortages have forced operating room closures in cities, and rural hospital closures that exacerbated a crisis in rural health care.

Our partially intended, partially unintended experiment in choking off immigration hasn’t led to surging wages and increased power for labor. Instead, it’s helped exacerbate a pandemic situation in which inflation and hiring crises in key industries create chaos and uncertainty.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Anti-immigration policies create more precarity for workers and undermine economic well-being for all.

In 2019, for example, the Texas Tribune reported that Target stores in Texas regularly employed undocumented immigrant cleaners. The workers were paid less than minimum wage, worked seven-day weeks with no overtime pay, and were sometimes locked in the store to prevent them leaving while they completed extra tasks.

These abuses were only exacerbated during covid. Immigrant workers are generally not provided with sick leave and they often do not have access to any quality health care. Employers don’t provide them with masks or tests, and they don’t enable social distancing. 

Workplaces with immigrants had terrifying infection rates. Counties with meat-processing plants had an 800 percent to 1,000 percent increase in infection rates over counties without such plants. 

Our hostility toward immigrants makes the US less able to adapt to labor shocks and crises. It’s also created a vast reservoir of people who have no job protections and can be exploited at will. 

That weakens labor everywhere, since workers are forced to compete with undocumented people who lack protections. The same factors weaken public health systems in deadly ways.

We’d all be better off if we treated immigrants not as dangerous invaders and serfs, but as neighbors and fellow workers.

That was the finding of the Center for American Progress, which in 2021 calculated the economic benefit of giving the roughly 10.1 million undocumented immigrants in the US a path to citizenship.

The report concluded that a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants would boost US GDP by $1.7 trillion over 10 years and would create 438,000 jobs.

These numbers were calculated by considering the wage boost to undocumented people that would come with legalization and citizenship. It considers increases in productivity as undocumented people access educational resources and on-the-job training.

The report does not consider the benefits to public health of making sure everyone in the country has access to health care, sick leave, and workplace protections. Nor does the report discuss the ongoing need for immigration fueled by the declining US birth rate.

Since 2007, US births have fallen by 20 percent. The drop is not a result of demographic or policy changes. People of every age in the US are simply having fewer children.

Rightwing Republicans and their media allies often talk about falling birth rates as if they’re an existential threat, in part because they fear that demographic shifts will make their policies less popular.

But the truth is that immigration to the US has largely offset falling births. We don’t need to worry about economic collapse from depopulation, because we’re not a closed system.  

Or at least, we shouldn’t be, and shouldn’t try to be. 

Immigration policy offers us a choice. Do we want to encourage growth and prosperity for all? Or are we more focused on making sure certain people suffer for having been born in the wrong place?

A politics of hate impoverishes everyone. 

We should choose a more open and better way.

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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