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“These People are Taking Our Jobs”

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Economic Effects on Immigration

The Bracero Program

In 1942, the first Mexican workers arrive in Los Angeles, California, as part of the Bracero Program.

Today the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Arizona’s S.B. 1070 law, which allows local police to inquire about the immigration status of people—stopped for any reason—whom they suspect are in the country illegally. One of the core issues at the heart of the Supreme Court decision is which level of government should address immigration policy. In a post for Riding the Tiger earlier this week, Anna O. Law provided historical context to the debate over who should control immigration policy.

S.B. 1070 and other state laws also raise important questions regarding the link between the economy and immigration. Historically, debates over national immigration policy have included two arguments. The first is the claim that immigrants do work that Americans do not want to do. On the other hand is the concern that illegal immigrants take jobs away from Americans.  

Historical evidence from the Miller Center's Presidential Recordings Program indeed suggests that the availability of jobs has been an important factor in making national immigration policy. For example, in this August 1965 telephone conversation, President Lyndon B. Johnson discussed his decision with Senator Spessard Holland of Florida to allow foreign workers in Florida’s sugar farms during the harvest season, which the Florida sugar industry had requested and Holland had advocated. Johnson and Holland also discussed the need for foreign workers in the citrus industry because companies “just can't get the Americans to do it.”

In February 1964, however, President Johnson found himself advocating the complete opposite position to prevent workers from entering the country. At the behest of James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, Johnson raised the issue of Mexican immigrant workers with President Adolfo López Mateos of Mexico. Congress had recently passed a one-year extension of the Bracero Agreement, which allowed Mexican workers to work on U.S. farms, but Farmer opposed the extension, arguing it took jobs away from black workers. President Johnson told Farmer that he discussed with Mateos that “there’s a good deal of feeling in this country that people are taking our jobs and at substandard wages.” According to the president, Mateos responded that he understood the feeling and if there were adequate American workers, then the Mexican government would have to find public works projects for their people and perhaps get food aid from the United States.

Once again the links between immigration and the economy have been revived in debates leading up to Supreme Court oral arguments on S.B. 1070. Arguing in favor of immigrant rights, Democratic State Senator Steve Gallardo of Arizona and Suman Raghunathan, director of policy and strategic partnerships at Progressive States Network, wrote this week:

If, for example, SB 1070 successfully drove every undocumented immigrant out of Arizona, it would also succeed in reducing total employment by 17.2 percent, shrinking the state economy by $48.8 billion, and reducing state tax revenues by 10.1 percent. These are consequences that unquestionably affect all Arizonans, regardless of immigration status.

On the other side, former Republican State Senator Russell Pearce, who introduced S.B. 1070, argued that stronger immigration enforcement has positive economic benefits:

State and local governments are saving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in education, healthcare and other expenses thanks to dramatically lower numbers of illegal aliens enrolling in schools, visiting hospitals, and using other taxpayer-funded services. Better still, Arizonans are filling the jobs illegal aliens are leaving behind.

But the economic facts of immigration may not be so clear-cut. A new report from the Pew Hispanic Center released this week finds that several factors have contributed to declining rates of migration to the United States. These factors include the weakened U.S. economy, increased border enforcement, a rise in deportations, growing dangers at the border, and a long-term decline in Mexican birthrates. According to the report, the number of Mexicans who migrated between 1995 and 2000 was double the number that migrated from 2005 and 2010. Meanwhile, the number of Mexicans and their children who moved to Mexico doubled between 2005 and 2010. Advocates for S.B. 1070 have cited the report as evidence that tougher enforcement works in preventing illegal immigration. But other immigration reform advocates highlight the availability of jobs as one of the primary factors in the decision to migrate.

Debates about immigration policy will no doubt ensue long after the Supreme Court decision on S.B. 1070 and will also be an important issue in the 2012 election. The relationship between the states and the federal government in struggles over control of immigration policy is also inherently linked to economic factors. The historical flux of immigrants in the U.S. labor market points to the need for cooperation between the states and the federal government in crafting pragmatic immigration reform.

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