Stoll: For 22 million unemployed Americans, immigration reform poses a big risk

Editor’s note: David Stoll teaches at Middlebury College.  He is the author of “El Norte or Bust!  How Migration Fever and Microcredit Produced a Financial Crash in a Latin American Town” (

After many ups and downs, comprehensive immigration reform is the grand bargain showing that Democrats and Republicans can still compromise to solve a big national issue.  In exchange for tighter border controls, an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants will receive a path to citizenship.  The biggest players in the U.S. immigration debate will get more legal immigrants, more family reunification, more guestworkers and more sophisticated enforcement.

So will the rest of us – including the 22 million Americans who, according to the Labor Department’s U6 category, are unemployed, underemployed or too discouraged to even look for work. What are the implications for them?  If you believe American capitalism is a rising tide that lifts all boats, there’s nothing to worry about in the long run.  Immigrants are good for business and good for economic growth.

If you look at the U.S. labor force, there is plenty to worry about. The sociologist William Julius Wilson calls it “the disappearance of work,” visible first in inner-cities and now elsewhere. Declining youth employment, declining participation in the workforce, more off-the-books employment, stagnant or declining wages for most Americans – all have multiple causes, but the causes include the preference of American employers for foreign workers.

Consider the following remark from an aide to Marco Rubio, after the Florida senator rejected legislation to protect unionized construction workers from immigrants.

Backers of comprehensive immigration reform argue that American workers will be protected from foreign competition by a thicket of new regulations.  But access to a U.S. job is one of the most coveted commodities in the world…

“There shouldn’t be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can’t get it, can’t do it, don’t want to do it. And so you can’t obviously discuss that publicly.”

What this congressional aide does not wish to discuss is a deep paradox in what Americans want.  We want to be a nation of people with deep obligations toward each other.  We also want to be the most competitive economy in the world, which is not compatible with deep obligations to all the losers produced by our contradictory aspirations.  For employers with the money to be heard in Washington, the “star performers” are foreigners who will work harder than Americans and for lower wages.

Immigrants are not to blame for how confused Americans are, but more want to come here than we can give jobs. All over the world jobs are scarce and unemployed youth are not.  Even in Mexico, from which immigration is diminishing, the latest polling from the Pew Global Attitudes Project indicates that 35 percent of the Mexican population would move to the U.S. if it could.

Gallup’s world poll, based on interviews with half a million respondents, estimates that 138 million adults around the world would like to move to the U.S. permanently if they could – including 20 percent or more of the populations of Honduras, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Backers of comprehensive immigration reform argue that American workers will be protected from foreign competition by a thicket of new regulations.  But access to a U.S. job is one of the most coveted commodities in the world, millions can be made by breaking the regulations, and federal agencies will not receive the budgets needed for enforcement.

As an anthropologist, I do research with Guatemalans who have borrowed an average of $5,000 to be smuggled across Mexico and into the U.S. Most are hard workers, stay out of trouble and remit as much as they can to their families.

Unfortunately, many are unable to find enough work to meet their living expenses, pay off the costs of getting here, and support their families – in which case they go deeper into debt.

Certainly, legal status will make it safer and cheaper for these people to go back and forth to Guatemala. But it won’t mean a living wage because they will only be legalized into our burgeoning working poor, who don’t earn enough to meet basic needs and who are also going deeper into debt.

What about the hardworking immigrant-entrepreneurs who prove the American Dream is still alive?  Such people exist, but they are not a realistic standard for most immigrants.  On close inspection, too many immigrant entrepreneurs rise into the middle class by importing more immigrants legally or illegally, paying them less than minimum wage and underbidding competitors, with the social costs transferred to taxpayers.

Consider the 7-11 scandal, in which Pakistani store managers in New York and Virginia were importing fellow Pakistanis and stealing their pay.  Only because these naturalized U.S. citizens were reported by a courageous undocumented employee were the feds able to investigate.

Legalizing undocumented workers will encourage more of them to report violations; this is a solid argument for the path to legalization. But the desperation for work all over the world, and the desire for U.S. jobs that now extends deep into several continents, will pressure many such workers to continue under-the-table arrangements with their exploiters, in the hopes of smuggling more relatives to the U.S.

Advocates of the path to legalization say the U.S. immigration system is “broken,” but from whose point of view?  Employers who want to hire more foreign labor are very dissatisfied. From the point of view of American workers who are easily underbid by foreign labor, restrictions on immigration protect us from the race to the bottom, which is wage parity with the Third World.

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Dave Bellini
3 years 5 months ago

But we HAVE to have illegal aliens! We NEED them to work for low, wages on Vermont dairy farms. That way we can keep over producing milk and ensure a good supply of phosphorus run off into Lake Champlain. There’s nothing more important than people being able to see “working lands” when they drive through Vermont.

George Plumb
3 years 5 months ago
Wow! This kind of an op ed coming from an academic and from a liberal college. Thank you Prof. Stoll for having the courage to tell this part of the story. Another part of the story is the environmental impact. The immigration debate should have been preceded by a discussion on what is a sustainable population size for the U.S. According to some who have studied this legislation it will add at least another thirty million people in coming decades to a country that is already in overshoot for its long term carrying capacity and sustainability. Three year guest worker… Read more »
Lee Stirling
3 years 5 months ago
I think the true take home message of David Stoll’s story for Vermont is that the more foreign, low-wage, potentially-exploited workers we have in the USA and VT, the more burden will be placed on government services to care for them. Given that the reality is most of these new workers won’t be able to make ends meet given their pre-existing debts, no matter what job they get or how long they work, it’s inevitable that more demands on our limited tax dollars will ensue. How much farther can we as a nation and a state stretch our budgets to… Read more »
3 years 5 months ago


I’m with you! You don’t have to have an advanced degree in economics to see the impact that mass immigration during the past 30 years has had on American wages. The Fools on the Hill in D.C. are the lap dogs of Corporate America and they know exactly what they are doing. Making it all the more disgusting is that they have absolutely no remorse.

Phyllis North
3 years 5 months ago

Didn’t we give a big amnesty in 1986 that was supposed to solve this problem and end illegal immigration? Now we are doing nearly the same thing almost three decades later. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

One step that might help is to mandate e-Verify so employers are required to check the status of their hires. And punish those companies that hire illegals.

3 years 5 months ago
“There shouldn’t be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can’t get it, can’t do it, don’t want to do it. And so you can’t obviously discuss that publicly.” Props to Rubio for broaching protocol, but it’s important to note that Rubio certainly doesn’t “want to do it” — that’s why he’s a celebrity politician instead of a Starbucks manager! This ties back into the recent news that Vermont has low “workforce engagement” — a hilariously bleak metric in a culture with no meaningful work. The bigger conversation here is a stark… Read more »
Mollie Butler
3 years 5 months ago

America has run out of jobs to give the world labor force. We are headed on a path to becoming a third world nation. If we want to stop this disasterous momentum, we must secure all borders, aggressively enforce our current immigration laws and stop letting the liberals make us feel guilty about it. Write and call the politicians and speak to your neighbors before it is too late. We have the facts on our side.

Theresa Maurice
3 years 5 months ago

I agree that we have run out of jobs for our “own”, but big business has outsourced this work to other countries in order to meet their bottom line – more money in the pockets of the Queen Bees, less in the pockets of the Worker Bees. This does not a strong nation make. This country is built on the backs of immigrants. Perhaps it is when their descendants have lost their jobs to overseas chief labour that we haved failed.

Theresa Maurice
3 years 5 months ago

That is”cheap” labour.

Ben Holmes
3 years 5 months ago
Thank you for speaking the truth in the face of severe intellectual intimidation from the Left and Big Corporations. What a strange alliance of people seeking to impose mass amnesty upon this nation. No one is anti-immigrant; we want to reform immigration to first serve the needs of economically deprived Americans, while also keeping the door open for folks who offer valuable skills. Until we can substantially lower the unemployment rate (both ‘official’ and U-6 figures), immigration should be notably reduced. Quotas should be limited until the unemployment rate hits 3% and holds for at least five years. Americans get… Read more »
Joyce Cato
3 years 5 months ago
It is a pleasure to see that people are beginning to realize that continued immigration to suit the wants of the big corporations and rewarding law breakers of the rule of laws of this country will lead to the downfall of America and America becoming a third world country. Americans should be given the jobs in their country and a moratorium placed on legal and illegal immigration. I agree with Ben Holmes that we want to reform immigration to first serve the needs of economically deprived Americans and only allow immigrants that can be a valuable asset to our country… Read more »
Jamal Kheiry
3 years 5 months ago
Everyone in this comment thread – as well as the column’s author – seems utterly convinced that they know exactly who adds value to this nation and who doesn’t. The example of Marco Rubio cited above is instructive; his parents were both “low-skilled” immigrants, and he – brought up in their hard-working household – became an accomplished professional, speaker of the Florida House, and then U.S. Senator. This type of life story, in which low-skilled morphs to high-skill within a single generation, has taken place millions of times in this country. In my own case, my dad came to this… Read more »
2 years 10 months ago
What is needed is a reform of the American immigration system that rewards those who apply according to the rules and penalizes those who try to skirt around them. However, this does not mean that the 12 million immigrants unlawfully present in the United States should simply be ignored. The problem of unlawful immigration has become a systemic problem as opposed to a rare, sporadic problem. That is because the current immigration rules, though well intentioned, have made legal immigration so difficult that it has become almost impossible for many intending applicants. Let’s see if we can make the rules… Read more »
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