Who Are the Losers of Immigration Reform?

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Mickey Kaus today raises an impolite and oft-ignored question about immigration reform: What about the losers?

Kaus's starting point is a crude quote, published in the New Yorker, from an unnamed aide to Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida:

"There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can't cut it. There shouldn't be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can't get it, can't do it, don't want to do it."

As it happens, the U.S. is chock full of workers who "can't cut it," if what you mean by "cut it" is to climb one's way out of poverty into the middle class.

Whether immigration reform and the legalization of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants makes that ascent even more difficult is a crucial question. Kaus, a perennial skeptic of immigration's virtues, cites two poles of the debate. Economist Giovanni Peri of the University of California at Davis says that native workers are not displaced by legalized immigrants. Instead, immigrants, who generally lack the communications skills and cultural savvy of native workers, take the lowest rung of jobs, enabling savvier native workers to rise a notch to tasks requiring "interactive-communication-coordination."

George Borjas of Harvard University says otherwise -- that immigration undermines the bargaining power of the lowest earners, who are living so close to the edge already that a wage loss of even a few percent can be devastating.

The fate of the most vulnerable workers hasn't been a focus in a legislative debate that so far centers on how many alligators per square foot is optimal in a border moat. Having written on immigration politics many times, I'm guilty of paying insufficient attention to low-wage workers myself.

I don't know whether Borjas or Peri is more right. I generally distrust the ability of economists to accurately model every facet of anything as complex and dynamic and squirrelly as a mass legalization of immigrants.

We don't know exactly what effect immigration reform will have on low-wage native workers. We do have a pretty good idea of how it might influence the 11 million non-natives currently in legal limbo. They would gain a pathway not just to citizenship but to greater security and confidence; a pathway to display their skills -- what they can do, how hard they can work, even whether they can raise children capable of seizing narrow opportunities and beating tough odds.

Kaus was right to point out the contempt dripping from the Rubio aide's quote. And Kaus is not necessarily wrong about the potential downside of reform, which could undermine wages for millions of low-skill Americans. But he's excluded an important group from his vision -- the 11 million who stand to benefit most directly from legalization. If you're counting citizens, maybe that's not a factor. If you're measuring human dignity, the 11 million are the bird in hand.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net