Attorney General Jeff Sessions was practically giddy when he announced the end to President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy on Tuesday, which had extended deportation protection to hundreds of thousands of undocumented people who have lived in the United States since they were children. Sessions justified the decision in part by claiming it would protect American workers. DACA, he asserted, “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens.”
Sessions may not care—he was denied a federal judgeship in the 1980s because of his racist past, and has long waged a nativist campaign against immigration reforms—but there is in fact no evidence to back up this claim. The idea that ending this immigration program has anything to do with the economy is a mere smokescreen. This is about racism, not jobs.
The notion that immigrants “steal” jobs from native-born Americans is deeply ingrained for many people, but it makes little practical sense, particularly so when it comes to DACA recipients. Surveys have found that once they were approved for a work permit, these DREAMers, as they are known, found jobs making decent wages and were working toward professional careers. In 2015, more than three-quarters said they had gotten a new job, with half saying it paid better than the one before. In 2016, 87 percent were employed, earning about $14 an hour. DACA allowed them to get over-the-table employment, and the extra money they made led to financial stability and a big increase in car and home purchases.
Their money was then sown back into their communities via the businesses they frequented and the taxes they paid. Six percent even started businesses of their own, thus creating more jobs for others.
That positive reinforcement—allowing DACA recipients to work legally and earn more, thereby opening up more economic opportunities to them that pay dividends to everyone else—is how the economy works generally. To assume that immigrants steal jobs is to assume that work is a zero sum game: If I get work, I’ve taken it away from you. But that’s not how things function in practice, because there is no fixed amount of work to be divvied up. This is what economists have come to call the “lump of labor” fallacy.
And it’s not hard to grasp. As Noah Smith pointed out, if this were true, then a growing population would have snuffed out all work opportunities long ago and we’d have ongoing, incurable mass unemployment. Instead, new entrants to the workforce—new babies born, say, or women leaving the household and getting paid jobs, or immigrants allowed into the country—help expand the economy for everyone, which creates jobs.
DACA recipients particularly fit this bill given their propensity to turn higher wages into purchases that can spur businesses to expand—or to even start their own. They represent a select group of immigrants, since, in order to qualify, they had to pass a background check, have a high school diploma or GED certificate, and have never been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. The majority have at least some college education under their belts.
But just because they were particularly qualified doesn’t mean the dynamic is different for immigrants of other backgrounds and abilities. Even lower-educated or low-wage immigrants aren’t stealing our jobs.
The most prominent economist to have supposedly proven that low-wage immigrants hurt low-wage native workers is George Borjas, who studied what happened to black high school dropouts when hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled to the U.S. in 1980. His paper purportedly found that among these similar workers, Cubans were taking jobs of the native-born. But a number of economists have since thrown cold water on this work and how it was conducted, uncovering a number of important flaws.
Instead, the bulk of research on low-wage immigrants finds that they do different kinds of jobs than those born here who didn’t graduate high school, meaning that the two groups aren’t in competition. These immigrants also have little impact on the wages or employment opportunities of the native-born. A recent 550-page report summing up all the available research found that immigrants had “little to no negative effects on overall wages and employment of native-born workers” and that “immigration has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the United States.”
On the other hand, the last time the country tried a massive crackdown on immigrant workers from Mexico, in an attempt to shore up prospects for native workers in the 1960s, it didn’t result in any of the promised effects. Wages and employment stayed the same for domestic workers even as the supply of immigrant workers fell dramatically. We don’t actually have a good track record of kicking people out and creating jobs for those who stay.
The economic argument is in many ways beside the point. Deporting people who have only ever known this country is inhumane. So is the mass deportation of people who came here seeking better opportunities, often fleeing difficult or dangerous conditions at home, many of whom would have to return to near certain peril.
Similarly, for those who back President Trump’s nativist crackdown on all types of immigration, the issue likely isn’t about what economic impact immigrants might have. Ethnocentrism and racism are about maintaining racial hegemony and power, not about astute economic analysis.
But Sessions is lying when he says that the Trump administration’s reversal on DACA is about jobs. Hiding racism behind economics doesn’t make it less racist. And in this case, the economics are flat-out wrong.