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Does Data Back Trump Administration Plan To Cut Legal Immigration In Half?


As we mentioned earlier, the Trump administration threw its support behind an immigration plan this week. The plan cuts immigration in half and gives preference to highly skilled, English-speaking immigrants. Supporters say immigrants take jobs away from American workers and push down wages. Abigail Cooke studies the economic impact of immigration at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She joins us now.

Abigail, welcome.


SMITH: What impact have low-skilled immigrants had on the wages of blue-collar American workers? What does the data tell us?

COOKE: There's been a ton of research on this by a lot of people. And what they find is that the size of any effects at all of immigration on wages is really, really, really small and that the few people who do experience negative wage effects are similar immigrants who just arrived a little bit earlier or native-born workers who did not finish high school. But even for these groups, any of the negative effects are really, really tiny on their wages.

SMITH: Well, let's talk about that. What about American workers who did not get high school diplomas? What happens to their wages when immigration increases?

COOKE: There's some evidence that native-born workers who don't finish high school do compete with low-skill immigrants for the same jobs - in some cases. And when that happens, some of those people lose their jobs, their wages don't go up over time if they're having to switch jobs. But the size of this effect is really small. And one of the other things that happens, at least as often, is that those native-born workers are prompted to find new jobs doing maybe slightly different things. And often, those end up being slightly higher-skill jobs that come with higher wages.

SMITH: Oh, like what?

COOKE: Back of the house versus front of the house in restaurant service, even sometimes, you know, bumping up to a sort of lower management level, or something where you're required to have a bit stronger English skills.

SMITH: I feel like there's always a back and forth about whether low-skilled immigrants take jobs from American workers or whether they fill jobs that American workers wouldn't take. What have you found?

COOKE: When we talk about whether immigrants are taking these jobs, that's really premised on an idea that the pie stays the same size...

SMITH: Right.

COOKE: ...You know, or that there's a set number of jobs that we have, and we can either have native-born workers do them, or we can have immigrants do them. But when we add workers to the economy, we're not just adding those people as workers. They also consume things. They rent apartments, or they buy houses. They buy gasoline and food and participate in our economy in these other ways. And so when we add workers, we're also growing the size of the economy overall. And often through this complementarity mechanism, we're sort of shifting workers around towards slightly better matches for their exact skills.

SMITH: So why is this something that keeps coming up? Politicians bring this up all the time. There are people in communities across the country who feel as if immigrants are taking job opportunities from them.

COOKE: So it's intuitive, right? It seems to make sense, and so it's sort of hard to believe that immigrants don't take people's jobs, right? - because we ignore actually how complex and dynamic the economy is. But I also think it's easier to point the finger at people who seem different than it is to really think about how the structures of our economy are really not helping a lot of low-skilled, low-wage people in this country. So I think there's a little bit of scapegoating going on.

SMITH: Abigail Cooke studies the economic impact of immigration at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Abigail, thank you.

COOKE: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLYING LOTUS' "NEVER CATCH ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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