Obama’s Immigration Action Will Raise Pay and Reduce Poverty

Marchers at one of several May Day immigration-themed events in Los Angeles Photograph by David McNew/Getty Images

Under the executive action announced on Thursday night by President Obama, millions of undocumented immigrants could secure authorization to work in the U.S. as well as relief from the threat of being deported. Research suggests that among the many ways that will improve their day-to-day lives, it will boost their paychecks.

“This is a huge antipoverty program,” says Sherrie Kossoudji, a professor of social work and economics at the University of Michigan. In a 2002 paper, Kossoudji and co-author Deborah Cobb-Clark estimated that the 1986 amnesty program signed by Ronald Reagan provided immigrants a wage boost of about 6 percent. “Let’s say you don’t have working papers,” says Kossoudji. “What are you looking for in a job? You’re looking for a job that minimizes the risk of apprehension.” Immigrants who aren’t afraid of being deported, she argues, are better positioned to switch companies in search of improved pay, or to demand better positions within the same company, like working as line cooks rather than as dishwashers.

Other studies have concluded that immigrant workers are also more likely to be illegally underpaid, and more vulnerable to retaliation if they try to organize for improvements. In a 2008 survey of low-wage workers in three cities, 37 percent of undocumented immigrants reported experiencing violations of minimum wage laws. That affects their co-workers as well: “When the immigrants’ wages are unfairly held down,” Daniel Costa of the liberal Economic Policy Institute wrote on Thursday, “so are the wages of U.S. workers competing for the same jobs and hours.” That’s one reason labor unions have in recent decades become among the most vocal and visible advocates for creating a path to citizenship.

The temporary relief offered by Obama falls short of that, and unlike the 1986 law, it provides only temporary relief. Does that mean it will make less of a difference in workers’ paychecks? “I think it’s safe to say that things are going to be better for these workers,” says Kossoudji. “How much better they’re going to be, I don’t think we can say.”

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