Santorum has embedded his criticism of legal immigration in a broader message that admirably addresses an issue most Republicans have sidestepped: the economic strains on American workers who did not attend college. In Iowa, Santorum said his party must develop policies on training and manufacturing that expand blue-collar opportunity. But he centered his speech on the claim that immigrants have monopolized the jobs created since 2000. "There are fewer Americans working today who were born in this country than there were in "¦ 2000," he said. Santorum praised the 1921 and 1924 acts that suppressed immigration (until Congress reversed the policy in 1965) as a time when "Republicans and Democrats put you first" by recognizing that mass immigration was undermining native workers.
Santorum's history cut some corners, however. With the economy dipping, economic concerns did influence the 1921 law, as the late John Higham noted in Strangers in the Land, his classic history of nativism. But so did the disillusioned recoil from foreign engagement after World War I that also sparked the anti-communist Palmer Raids, protectionist trade barriers, and the Senate's rejection of the League of Nations. By 1924, with the economy recovering, Higham wrote, the push to limit immigration drew primarily on "an increasingly assertive racial nativism."
Santorum's claim that foreign-born workers have taken all of the net jobs since 2000 overstates the case too. He cites a 2014 study from the Center for Immigration Studies, a group favoring restrictions. The CIS study looked solely at workers ages 16 to 65, from early 2000 through early 2014. But looking at all adults 16 and older through all of 2014, native-born workers have gained 2.8 million additional jobs since 2000, and foreign-born workers about 7.5 million, notes Brookings Institution demographer William Frey. While the native-born suffered most in the 2008 crash, since the fall of 2009 they have obtained more than three-fifths of newly created jobs.
Those adjustments don't inherently discredit Santorum's larger point that immigration is hurting American-born workers. But most economists concur with a 2013 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas that found more economic benefits than costs from immigration. Pia Orrenius, a Fed senior economist who coauthored that paper, says it's wrong to assume that because foreign-born workers have landed more jobs, "they took them away from the native born." Compared with native-born Americans, she says, immigrants are more heavily concentrated in prime working ages and more willing to relocate to areas that are generating jobs. Some of the jobs immigrants are filling might not have been created without them. By increasing the labor force, Orrenius notes, immigrants can accelerate overall economic growth, which also benefits native workers.