Would Cracking Down on Illegal Immigration Really Cut Unemployment?

Americans don't want many of these jobs anyway and aren't desperate enough to settle

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"And here is something else that we have to do that will help the economy. We have to build the fence on America's southern border and get a grip on dealing with our immigration problem." This was one of the responses from Rep. Michelle Bachmann during Wednesday night's Republican Presidential Debate when asked how she would create jobs as quickly as possible. This is a sentiment shared by many Americans: when there are people in this country illegally, why should they be able to take some of the precious jobs available? In practice, however, most of these jobs aren't all that precious. 

Elizabeth Dwoskin at Bloomberg wrote a very thought-provoking article on this topic this week. She found that Americans don't want many of those jobs that illegal immigrants have. She shows this through a sort of case study of Alabama. The state recently passed a law that allows the police to question people they suspect are in the U.S. illegally. As you might guess, illegal immigrants are fleeing the state.

But the expected boost for unemployed Americans isn't materializing: they aren't rushing to take the jobs those illegal immigrants are leaving behind. Dwoskin writes:

In their wake are thousands of vacant positions and hundreds of angry business owners staring at unpicked tomatoes, uncleaned fish, and unmade beds. "Somebody has to figure this out. The immigrants aren't coming back to Alabama--they're gone," Rhodes says. "I have 158 jobs, and I need to give them to somebody."

There's no shortage of people he could give those jobs to. In Alabama, some 211,000 people are out of work. In rural Perry County, where Harvest Select is located, the unemployment rate is 18.2 percent, twice the national average. One of the big selling points of the immigration law was that it would free up jobs that Republican Governor Robert Bentley said immigrants had stolen from recession-battered Americans. Yet native Alabamians have not come running to fill these newly liberated positions. Many employers think the law is ludicrous and fought to stop it. Immigrants aren't stealing anything from anyone, they say. Businesses turned to foreign labor only because they couldn't find enough Americans to take the work they were offering.

At a moment when the country is relentless focused on unemployment, there are still jobs that often go unfilled. These are difficult, dirty, exhausting jobs that, for previous generations, were the first rickety step on the ladder to prosperity. They still are--just not for Americans.

This point may seem intuitively obvious, but it's nice to see a reporter provide a clear, cohesive example of why illegal immigrants aren't a significant causal force of the high rate of unemployment. The problem isn't merely that there aren't enough jobs -- there aren't enough of the right sort of jobs.

Perhaps if the U.S. didn't have unemployment insurance programs in place, things would be different. If jobless Americans couldn't collect checks for 99 weeks, then they might feel a greater sense of urgency to settle for any job that they could get -- they would then be more willing to pick tomatoes, gut fish, and make beds. But if they can continue to look for something better while just scraping by on the money they get from the government, then that's a better option.

Is the answer, then, to both deport illegal immigrants and end unemployment insurance? Maybe this would cause the unemployment rate to decline a little. But would its decline really imply that the nation was much better off? Remember, most of the job openings that would result would be among the least desirable out there. They would pay poorly and result in a pay cut for many of those Americans. They would also lead to the same sort of skills atrophy that unemployment causes if Americans didn't find a better job more suited to their previous work experience for a year or two.

So would cracking down on illegal immigration make the U.S. labor market much better off? Reading Dwoskin's article, it's hard to see how. For the U.S. economy to flourish again, the private sector needs to add millions of good-paying jobs that help to build a skill set, which will rebuild the U.S. middle class. You don't get many of those jobs by merely cracking down on illegal immigration.

Image Credit: Reuters

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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