The New Narrative: Less Immigration Is Bad

If one follows the political debate over a divisive issue for a long time, it is not rare to see ideological advocates switch to making arguments they would never have made years earlier. The political environment changed, and the claims that need to be made to further the ideological objective must change as well.

Maybe it’s just me because I instinctively read in between the lines whenever I read anything about immigration, but I’m beginning to detect such a seismic shift in the immigration debate. We all know the party line by now: Immigrants do jobs that natives don’t want to do. As a result, natives do not lose jobs, and natives do not see their wages reduced. And anyone who claims otherwise is obviously a racist xenophobic moron. They obviously don’t like immigrants, and they obviously are not educated/credentialed enough to understand and appreciate expert opinion.

The flurry of immigration restrictions proposed by the Trump administration demands a switch in tactics–with a corresponding switch in the argument linking immigration and wages. The party line must now be that less immigration is bad. But how can one show that in simple-to-grasp economic terms that can be mass-marketed to the masses? By far the simplest way is to come up with examples that less immigration raises labor costs and makes us miserable because everything becomes more expensive.

I first noticed the tactical switch back in March when the Washington Post published a story headlined After decades in America, the newly deported return to a Mexico they barely recognize, The point of the story, of course, was to imply that Trump’s deportation initiatives are bad because they are making Mexicans worse off. And how exactly are Mexicans made worse off?

More returnees means lower wages for everybody in blue-collar industries such as construction and automobile manufacturing, where competition for jobs is likely to increase, economists say.

I love the “economists say” add-on. Too bad that those economic experts remain unnamed. But don’t be shocked if they are the same exact economic experts who have been claiming the same exact opposite for two or three decades in the context of the American labor market.

Then there’s this story in a local New England paper. The goal again is to demonstrate the economic costs created by Trump’s immigration restrictions. The Bangor Daily News article is headlined Amid foreign worker shortage, Bar Harbor businesses turn to local labor. The article starts off by noting that “Businesses in Maine that rely on summer help are hoping that Congress will come to the rescue.” And what do these businesses have to be rescued from? Higher wages, of course.

Because of new limits on the seasonal worker visa program, restaurants, hotels and other tourist-centered operations are scrambling to find seasonal employees. Until Congress opens the door to more H-2B foreign workers…Bar Harbor area employers are enticing workers in other ways. Higher wages are part of the solution.

The Dallas Morning News joins in the fun with a story blaming the immigration slowdown for higher housing prices. The story is headlined One Reason for Dallas’ soaring home prices and labor shortage: Immigrants aren’t coming to work:

Dallas home prices are climbing rapidly, and homebuilders are complaining about labor shortages and soaring wages for construction workers.

Duh! Who could have possibly guessed that fewer construction workers meant higher construction wages?

Finally, the highly credentialed economic experts at the Federal Reserve are out in force documenting just how costly the immigration-related actions of the Trump administration are. In a recent Bloomberg article headlined Fed Officials Sharpen Concerns Over Trump’s Immigration Policy, those credentialed experts expertly make the point:

Patrick Harker, president of the Philadelphia Fed, became the latest policy maker to call attention to the struggles of companies in finding low-skilled labor…The Chicago Fed said one manufacturing firm raised wages 10 percent to attract better applicants and improve retention of unskilled workers. A freight trucking firm in Cleveland reported granting raises of almost 8 percent in an attempt to retain workers.

There is no upper bound to the hypocrisy of experts. It might be a lot of fun to keep track of this over the next few years, watching the dominos fall and all those “immigration-does-not-affect-wages” experts fall all over themselves as they switch to proving the economic awfulness of Trump’s actions because fewer immigrants mean higher labor costs, higher prices, more inflation.

But don’t hold your breath for any admission that they were wrong in the past. They will instantly switch to the former party line the minute the Trump immigration restrictions fade into history.

Author: George Borjas

I am a Professor of Economics and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.