The Jobless Effect: The Toxic Mix of Illegal Immigration and Unemployment

Protest rally against illegal immigration
Protest rally against illegal immigration

As chief executive of a country emerging from a brutal recession, President Barack Obama faces a host of pressing issues. But two long-term problems have morphed into crises and have come to a head lately -- immigration and joblessness. What's not always so obvious is how closely linked the two issues have become.

In a July 1 speech, the President took the immigration problem by the horns, calling the much maligned Arizona immigration law "ill conceived," and he reminded Americans that they live in a country of immigrants.

Polls, however reveal that a majority of Americans are on the other side of the President and support the bill, which requires police to question the immigration status of people they stop or arrest for other reasons.

Touching a Nerve

Beaten down from a long, hard economic downturn that has robbed many of their livelihood, the public is sending clear signals that during tough economic times like this, America can't afford so many illegal immigrants.

Indeed, a recent TIPP poll released July 12 showed that 51% of Americans are in favor of the Arizona's immigration law. Before that, a Quinnipiac University poll released in June also showed that 51% of American voters approved the Arizona law, and 48% say they want their state to pass a similar law. Rasmussen Reports found 61% people in favor of passing such a law in their state.

Arizona's new approach to immigration clearly touched a nerve when it was signed by Governor Jan Brewer in April. Civil and human rights organizations have condemned the law, saying it will lead to racial profiling. Cities from Seattle to Boston have called for a boycott of Arizona and urged citizens not to travel to the state. Conventions and conferences were canceled or moved to locations outside of Arizona. And the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop the law from taking effect on July 29.

It's a Pocketbook Issue

Still, no matter what happens next, for now, the American public favors a crackdown on illegal immigrants. People in the border states are particularly fed up with the increase in drug-related crimes.

However, the rest of America has another reason for the rise in such sentiment, which is their pocketbook. Raghavan Mayur, president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, which conducts the TIPP polls, says the link between the 8 million jobs lost during the Great Recession and the hostile attitude toward immigrants cannot be ignored.

TIPP, which is a polling partner of Investors' Business Daily and Christian Science Monitor, found anti-immigrant attitudes to be especially prevalent among households that are job-sensitive, that is, where "at least one member is looking for work or is concerned that a member might be laid off, or both," according to Mayur. Among these households, 50% say American wages have gone down or have been undercut because of both legal and illegal immigration, compared with only 31% of homes that haven't been affected by unemployment.

Picking up on popular sentiment, politicians have been quick to draw the link between the two. "There are 15 million unemployed workers in America and 8 million illegal immigrants in the labor force. We could cut unemployment in half simply by reclaiming the jobs taken by illegal workers," says Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

Bigger Impact on Low-Income, Less-Educated Workers

A June poll from the Pew Research Center underscores TIPP's findings. In this poll, 50% say immigrants are a burden on the U.S. because "they take our jobs, housing and health care," an increase of 10 percentage points of respondents holding this view since November 2009.

A closer look at the Pew data reveals that the fears are highest among lower-income groups. In both political parties, anti-immigrant sentiment is stronger among those with no college experience than among those with.

Andrew Sum, a professor of economics and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, says these fears aren't unfounded, especially among the lower-income groups. Sum says his research shows it's not true that new immigrants take only the jobs that Americans don't want. In fact, his studies find that illegal immigrants lead to a high level of job displacement among men under 25, and especially for young adults with no postsecondary education.

"Illegal immigrants compete with younger workers with less schooling," says Sum. "And if you and I live in an area with a large share of immigrants, your young adults will see an above-average share of jobs displaced by illegal immigrants. It's not a surprise that it's led to a toxic situation."

Want to Work on a Farm?

To be sure, some farmers say America has no option but to rely on the immigrant workforce to harvest fruits and vegetables. According to the Labor Department, 70% of farm workers are born abroad.

The United Farm Workers union points to statistics that show half of farm workers are illegal. It says that's because Americans aren't willing to take jobs on farms because of the tough working conditions and low wages. To showcase the situation, the union has started a website called and urged all unemployed Americans to apply for a job.

The UFW's point is that immigrants don't steal farm workers' jobs because no American want them. Since it launched on June 24, the site has received 8,485 inquiries, says Maria Machuca, communications director at the union. Of those, only three have pursued and taken a job.

Fixing One Problem Will Ease the Other

President Obama is aware of the shortcomings and arguments on both sides. "Because [undocumented workers] live in the shadows, they're vulnerable to unscrupulous businesses who pay them less than the minimum wage or violate worker safety rules -- thereby putting companies who follow those rules, and Americans who rightly demand the minimum wage or overtime, at an unfair [dis]advantage," says the President. "Into this breach, states like Arizona have decided to take matters into their own hands. Given the levels of frustration across the country, this is understandable."

Because of the Arizona law, the president might have been forced to deal with the immigration issue earlier in his term than he probably wanted to. And he has taken on the issue at a time when the state of the economy has made Americans ever more nervous about immigrants stealing their jobs and working for less pay.

The bottom line is that turning the tide in unemployment is even more important when viewed through the prism of illegal immigration. Indeed, even though it isn't as obvious, a U.S. economy with more jobs could help defuse an increasingly volatile immigration issue.

Editor's Note:
This is the third part of "The Jobless Effect" series. Also see:

"Is the Real Unemployment Rate 16.5%, 22$ or. . .?"

"Unemployment Is Fueling Independent Voters' Anger"