Immigrants help the economy
MOBILE, AL — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and his Trumpist compatriots are still waging a battle against immigrants down at the southern border —claiming that brown-skinned migrants pose an imminent threat, insisting on building a wall and busing migrants to the nation’s capital.
Unfortunately, such stunts will cheer Abbott’s xenophobic base, which rallied to the same ugly bigotry when it was fostered by former President Donald Trump. It is easy to whip up fear and resentment in white voters who may lose their status at the top of the heap as the nation becomes more diverse.
But the clamp-down on immigration that Trump started has hurt not only those would-be immigrants desperate for a better life but also citizens here in the United States. Without a generous policy of accepting newcomers, we don’t have the labor supply that we need. That’s one of the reasons that you see so many “Help Wanted” signs, especially at restaurants and retail establishments.
According to federal statistics, the national unemployment rate hovers at about 3.6 percent. Here in Alabama, the rate is even lower — three percent. Since economists consider an unemployment rate of five percent “full” employment, every able-bodied person who wants to work has a job already.
There are many reasons for the labor shortage, but a key factor is one that demographers have pointed to over the last couple of decades: America has an aging population. There aren’t enough able-bodied younger adults to take the jobs created since the pandemic lockdowns ended. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the retirement trend; many workers nearing retirement decided to go ahead and call it quits once the virus made workplaces uncomfortable.
Once upon a time, we would have imported the workers we needed, both skilled and unskilled. At the peak of immigration to the U.S., from 2015-16, nearly a million people were added. But our xenophobia has gotten in the way. According to federal data, from 2020-21, net international migration to the U. S. added only 247,000 people to the population, the lowest level in decades, according to federal data. (COVID is part of the reason for dramatically slowed immigration, but the drop-off was exacerbated by Trump’s policies.)
Our shortsighted politicians on the right have whipped up the bigotry rather than acknowledge that immigration has been good for our economy. And it isn’t just those pols whose states border Mexico. Venture capitalist J.D. Vance is running for the GOP nomination for a U.S. Senate seat from Ohio, but he has joined the nativist chorus.
Once a Never Trumper, he apparently feels the need to shore up his credentials as a bigot, so he has an ad out claiming that “Joe Biden’s open border” means that there are “more Democrat voters pouring into this country.” Politifact, the Poynter Institute’s fact-check forum, has rated the claim “false.” For one thing, the border isn’t open: Every day, Border Patrol agents round up people trying to sneak into the country illegally and deport most of them. For another, non-citizens cannot vote.
During the 1990s, when even most Republican politicians believed immigration had benefits, economists debated the effect of so many new workers — especially unskilled laborers — on those workers already here. Did the flood of men and women willing to work for little money depress wages for citizens? Most studies found that unskilled laborers doing lawn care and construction work may have kept wages down a bit for unskilled Americans, but not by much. Meanwhile, the effect that immigrants had across the board — taking jobs Americans didn’t want, starting new businesses, revitalizing communities — was a boon.
But those newcomers brought young children who were reared in the U.S. and have demanded citizenship. They also bore additional children who were citizens by birthright. That trend has dramatically changed the population of the country, where whites will no longer constitute a clear majority by the year 2045, demographers say.
As writer Isabel Wilkerson wrote in her brilliant polemic “Caste,” whites in America, as the majority population, have always enjoyed favored status, dictating cultural norms. But that has already begun to change. Television shows and ads routinely depict interracial families, black physicians, Latino moms and days. Many whites are willing to sacrifice the economy — even the country — to fight that trend.