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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