The Immigration Debate: What are the Facts?

If you know me well, you know I'm a big immigration policy buff. Part of the reason it fascinates me (aside from my own family/identity ties to it) is that it is such a complex and contentious issue. I am also amazed at the extent to which public opinion on immigration shapes the positions of our congressional leaders. This is true for many policies, but I think immigration is unique because the facts are so muddled that even policy makers don't know what their positions are. And yet the public feels very strongly about their positions. To shape their policy stances, I think that our elected officials often rely their constituency's impulsive and erratic immigration stances. Their voters may or may have the best ideas, but at least this way they can stay in office!

Because of this, it is extremely important that the facts on immigration are well-disseminated to the voting public. There are varied positions on immigration, particularly illegal immigration, and I think that regardless of where you lie on the spectrum-from a MEChA member to a Minuteman- you have both valid and invalid points in your favor.

Compared to most policy issues, it is harder to extract pure clean facts on immigration. So I very much appreciate this recent opinion piece by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), who I personally trust for objective, fact-based research on California policy issues.

The piece is titled "Even in the Immigration Debate, Facts are Facts." It puts an end to the argument that immigration results in lower wages for CA citizens or that they are depriving citizens of jobs. Hans Johnson, author of the op-ed, backs up his argument with two main points:

First, from 1960 to 2004, the data shows no link between the large number of immigrants moving into California and U.S.-born workers either moving out of the state or dropping out of the work force. In other words, on average, U.S.-born workers were not displaced because of immigrants moving into the state.
Second, between 1990 and 2004, the real wages of U.S.-born workers received a positive boost – an estimated 3 to 5 percent – from the presence of immigrants in the work force. The amount that wages increased varied, depending on age and education, but almost without exception, the results were positive for U.S.-born workers.

Johnson further says that not only are immigrants not depriving Californians of jobs or fair wages, but they are raising the quality of our workforce as a whole and allowing Californians to "upgrade" their work skills.
The study reveals that immigrants do not compete directly with the majority of U.S.-born workers for the same jobs. Rather, they complement U.S. workers in terms of skills, education and occupations.
For example, in the agricultural field, most immigrants have taken jobs as agricultural laborers, while most U.S. workers have filled jobs such as farm supervisors. As the ranks of one type of worker increase, so does the demand for this other, complementary type.
Note that the author does not distinguish between legal and illegal immigration. That kind of analysis is difficult, as the US Census Bureau doesn't collect data on the undocumented. So bear in mind that this is big-picture analysis: examining immigration as a whole.

So back to the issue of public opinion. Since the public plays such an important role in determining the direction of immigration policy, I can't emphasize enough how important it is to keep the straight facts in mind when formulating your opinion on immigration. I am not telling you what to think. In fact, my position on it may surprise you: I think there are undoubtedly legitimate arguments (and very productive debates to be made) for limiting immigration (for example, overpopulation in CA, a strain on social services, homeland security concerns, and of course legality issues with the undocumented) but the worker/wage arguments are probably the most overused, and, in my opinion, most inaccurate.

For more information, you can also watch this interesting video on immigration and CA jobs and wages. I have plenty of other interesting information in this issue. If you are intersted, just ask!


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