© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Immigration's Impact On U.S. Jobs


How are immigrants really affecting the labor market? That's a question of fact behind the hyperbole of the fall election. President Trump has been framing immigration as a matter of identity politics and conspiracy theories. He talks of immigrants overwhelming this nation of immigrants and speaks of Middle Easterners among them, although he admits he has no evidence.

But there is a question about the labor market here. Do you think immigrants are taking your job or doing jobs that Americans would not? Ethan Lewis is a labor economist at Dartmouth, and he's on the line.

Good morning.

ETHAN LEWIS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: In the broadest sense, do immigrants, as they come to the United States at this time, boost the economy?

LEWIS: Yes, they do. You wouldn't know it from the rhetoric, but that is the basic story that comes out of economic research, that Central American immigrants in particular are highly beneficial to the U.S. economy.

INSKEEP: How could that be - because we hear about how they arrive with very few skills, in many cases, and may demand services and that sort of thing?

LEWIS: Well, the reason is related to what you said. Because they have very little skills, there are very few Americans with which they compete. And instead, it's almost the opposite. They do jobs at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. And that opens up opportunities for native-born Americans to move up the economic ladder.

INSKEEP: To move up the economic ladder - they don't just drag down wages for those low-end jobs?

LEWIS: No. And the reason is that Americans have a key advantage over Central American migrants, which is they speak English very well. So hiring immigrants allows natives to specialize in what they are particularly good at - things like supervisory work, sales. So there's actually more opportunities for low-skill workers as a result of bringing in workers who can do more manual jobs.

INSKEEP: Is it also true that a larger population over time just generally means more economic growth, a bigger country can be more prosperous?

LEWIS: Yes, indeed. So another thing that gets left out of the discussion is that they come in; they are also not just workers but consumers. So their demand for products and services is part of what fuels the greater amount of job opportunities that comes as a result of their being here.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about one other aspect of this, though. We're talking about low-skilled migrants, people who come across the border from Mexico, the kind of people in this much-publicized caravan - typically, anyway. But immigrants are extraordinarily diverse. And some of them are exceptionally high-skilled. And are brought in under...


INSKEEP: ...Special visas by corporations. Are there high-skilled immigrants who are in some way damaging to the overall job prospects and possibilities of people already here?

LEWIS: Well, I mean, the thing is they also tend to be specialized. I mean, the big gains from immigration come from skill diversity. And immigration brings in ideas and new opportunities from all over the world. And so even high-skill immigration - and by the way, that's one thing that's been lost. The vast majority of immigrants are very high-skill. Even they contribute a lot to the economy by starting businesses, creating new ideas, etc.

INSKEEP: So when you hear the immigration debate in this fall election, do you say to yourself, wow, this is a really factual and informative debate?

LEWIS: (Laughter) No. You know, it's hard to get these points across. They're fairly subtle. But there's a very big absence of just basic facts. And I hope - you know, your report will help with that, I think.

INSKEEP: Ethan Lewis of Dartmouth College, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

LEWIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

More On This Topic