The phrase “immigrants are stealing American jobs” has been uttered with increased frequency and disdain throughout the past decade. This belief serves as a rallying cry for anti-immigrant hate groups, and it is often used to justify punitive border security and deportation measures. The issue only seems to be getting more divisive, as the impact immigration has on American workers is debated in political, academic, and social circles, even with the unemployment rate at 3.6%, near historic lows, and with the number of undocumented workers declining. Coupled with the fact that immigration has a largely positive impact on the American economy, increasing productivity, raising the GDP, and filling gaps in the labor force, the country should welcome the benefits that are brought by immigration. So, why are we hearing more and more about the dangers immigration poses to the American worker?
The first thing to understand is what impact illegal immigration has on the labor force. When people immigrate illegally to the United States, the majority do so in order to find work and a better life. But, by working without documentation, they can be exploited by employers looking for cheap labor. Companies knowingly hire undocumented immigrants, using workarounds such as classifying them as independent contractors. The immigration status of these workers enable all kinds of employers, from small farms to large companies, to engage in illegal labor practices such as paying below minimum wage and not paying for overtime work. The businesses are confident in these strategies because of the threat of deportation looming over the workers’ heads, which prevents them from suing for lost wages. Even when caught, employers are rarely prosecuted for hiring undocumented workers.
The disconnect between the economic benefits of immigration and increasing hostility to immigrants comes from the impact these labor practices have on individual workers, specifically unskilled workers. As a result of companies paying undocumented workers illegal wages, the wages of American workers are depressed, making it harder for them to find jobs that pay a living wage. However, regardless of their impact on blue-collar wages, undocumented workers do not cause job shortages. In fact, even with the current number of undocumented immigrants in the workforce, there are still labor shortages in the United States in fields such as manufacturing, construction, and agriculture. The problem is that these jobs are either located in areas with already low rates of unemployment, or the jobs are seen as undesirable due to the hard-working conditions.
Instead of perpetuating the myth that “immigrants are stealing jobs,” Americans need to look at the problems of wealth disparity and depressed wages. Immigration is beneficial to the economy, but as is too often the case in America, economic benefits are only felt by a select few. The culprits are not the immigrants, rather they are the employers and corporations who exploit workers, along with the government that turns a blind eye to them. The communities most often seen engaging in harmful rhetoric about immigrants are not doing so based on fact. Instead, they are looking for a scapegoat, as the jobs that once made their communities prosper, such as coal mining, are becoming obsolete. There are jobs available, but many of them would force people to uproot their lives and leave their homes. Sadly, immigration was the easiest explanation for the dispossessed to make sense of their situations, leading to the myth that “immigrants steal jobs.” The only way to move the country forward is to help those left behind by the economy through job training and investment in blue-collar communities, so that they prosper along with the rest of the nation.