Immigrants do jobs natives won’t do
One of the arguments offered by supporters of expanded immigration, particularly in the context of low-skilled immigration to the United States, is that “immigrants do jobs that natives won’t do.” This argument, in the form stated, is incorrect, or at any rate, misleading.
This position has been critiqued by many who are critical of immigration. For instance, in a syndicated column titled Immigration Taboos, Thomas Sowell writes:
Immigration has joined the long list of subjects on which it is taboo to talk sense in plain English. At the heart of much confusion about immigration is the notion that we “need” immigrants — legal or illegal — to do work that Americans won’t do.
What we “need” depends on what it costs and what we are willing to pay. If I were a billionaire, I might “need” my own private jet. But I can remember a time when my family didn’t even “need” electricity.
Leaving prices out of the picture is probably the source of more fallacies in economics than any other single misconception. At current wages for low-level jobs and current levels of welfare, there are indeed many jobs that Americans will not take.
The fact that immigrants — and especially illegal immigrants — will take those jobs is the very reason the wage levels will not rise enough to attract Americans.
This is not rocket science. It is elementary supply and demand. Yet we continue to hear about the “need” for immigrants to do jobs that Americans will not do — even though these are all jobs that Americans have done for generations before mass illegal immigration became a way of life.
However, the actual economic argument is more subtle, and not so easy to ridicule. The key is to remember that prices not only affect the quantity of labor supply, but also the quantity of labor demand. If the supply curve shrinks inward because immigrants are not allowed in the labor market, then the price of labor increases, but the quantity supplied decreases, so overall, there are fewer jobs and less production. In the article Why Is Immigration Illegal Anyway?, Benjamin Powell and Art Carden say:
Immigrants tend to be either high-skilled or low-skilled; Americans tend to be more toward the middle of the skill distribution. This means that immigrants aren’t substitutes for American labor but, instead, free up American labor to do jobs where it is more productive. That’s one reason economists don’t find that immigration depresses the wages of the native-born.
As a number of economists have pointed out, immigrants don’t “do jobs Americans won’t do.” They do jobs that wouldn’t exist if the immigrants weren’t there to do them. By making life harder for a population of undocumented immigrants, the state government has ensured that future generations of Alabamians will be poorer than they would otherwise be.