Column: Does Immigration Boost the Economy? (3 of 5)

  • Dr. Roberto Feliz, a Dartmouth Medical School graduate, sees a patient at a clinic in the Boston area.

For the Valley News
Published: 1/17/2017 9:00:21 PM

President-elect Donald Trump aims to change legal immigration “to serve the best interests of America and its workers.” He also wants to run millions of unauthorized workers out of the country. His approach appears to be ready, fire, aim. Years of following the issue of immigration tell me that they probably help our economy more than they hurt, except where abuses abound.

Did Geraldine Fowler from South Africa steal a job out from under a native-born American when she became the part-time office manager at my Unitarian church in Woodstock? An engaging single parent with young children, she complements the church’s leadership, mostly north of 60 years old.

Was she paid less for being a foreigner? No. Did her hiring extend any pattern of preferential treatment for, or against, foreigners? Don’t know, as paid church positions are filled infrequently. Does she enlarge the church’s talent pool? Definitely yes.

I’ve learned not to buy simple conclusions about foreigners taking jobs from Americans. I’ve also learned how to detect when somebody is distorting facts about the job market. Be wary when someone of influence talks about a “shortage.”

In 1980, 7 percent of the American workforce was foreign-born. Today it is 17 percent. The 25 million foreign-born workers make up an hourglass, registering most heavily in categories of both highly educated and poorly educated, upwardly mobile or stuck in poverty. Over a quarter of practicing doctors and roofers are foreign-born. Upward of half of computer specialists and farm hands are foreign-born.

Since Congress passed a landmark immigration bill in 1965, reversing an explicitly racist and restrictive policy from the 1920s that favored Europeans, the hourglass shape has become more prominent. An act passed in 1986, in large measure to deter low-skilled illegal immigrants, backfired. A flood of unauthorized Latinos who had not finished high school rose, just as high school drop-out rates of native-born Americans fell. Many Americans today are not aware that around the time of the Great Recession, low-skilled Latinos mostly stopped coming, while Asians, close to half of whom had college degrees, started to come in ever-larger numbers.

Neither Congress nor the executive branch keeps track of how these shifting flows of new workers affect jobs, industries and the economy. Washington does not know how many workers enter the country, legally or illegally. That is partly because permanent visas given expressly for work are far fewer in number than those awarded on the basis of family connections.

To grasp the impact of the immigrant workforce, take a mental trip through the Upper Valley. The immigrant presence here is very small, in proportion a third or less than in major ports of entry.

The top of the hourglass here includes doctors and professors at Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock and engineers in private firms. If we had magic glasses to spot them, we might find them at a few tables at the Canoe Club. In San Jose, Calif., they might fill half the seats at an upscale restaurant; in Little Rock, Ark., practically none.

Economists tend to calculate that high-skilled immigrants boost the American economy. They account for about one of seven workers in jobs requiring a college or further degree, according to my own analysis of jobs, their education demands, and who fills them.

Toward the bottom part of the hourglass are foreign-born workers with little formal education. At the Home Depot parking lots and home building sites in San Jose and Little Rock are thick clusters of Hispanic men. We don’t see any at Home Depot in West Lebanon because immigration is slight here.

Economists are of mixed opinions about whether these workers hurt native-born workers with less formal education. Employers such as fast food chains, which the upcoming secretary of labor Andrew Puzder has made a large fortune from, depend on them for cooks, among other workers. They hold down about one-third of American jobs that do not require a high school degree.

The math of labor markets is complicated. Were a supply of workers to grow, it seems logical that wages would decline. But foreigners may compete mainly with other foreigners. Language and formal-credential barriers dampen competition with native-born workers. The analytic tools of economics are not subtle enough to pick apart what really affects native-born workers when technological change, foreign competition and more job seekers hit their industry.

One learns from immigrants that many start out low in America. I met an educated Croatian woman, Mirjana Kulenovic, who came to Boston after she was warned she might be shot for political activity. She started out here in a job well below her prior status. A Cuban veterinarian I know is a kitchen worker in Vermont.

Refugees also do not get a free ride, as many may imagine. They repay the federal government for their airfare. Cash support lasts a few months. Somalian Barket Farah arrived in Portland, Maine, in 2016, after waiting six years at the sprawling Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya for his application to be approved. Catholic Charities quickly found him a job at Backyard Farms, a huge hydroponic all-seasons tomato farm several hours from Portland.

I came across labor researchers who know the hierarchies of work. Immigrants view their jobs in meat-processing plants as a step up from season-to-season uncertainty of farm or construction work for steady pay.

On California farms, indigenous immigrants from Mexico, mostly unauthorized, do piecework. On the next higher rung are unauthorized Latinos, then Latino Green Card holders and then naturalized Latinos with steady wages. At the top are farm managers, almost entirely native-born.

The American Medical Society is a labor market engineer. It influences the credentialing of foreign-educated physicians. Its power became apparent to me when I talked with Roberto Feliz, a Dartmouth Medical School graduate who runs Latino-oriented medical clinics in the Boston area. He came at age 4 from the Dominican Republic. Feliz told me that two weeks after a new clinic of his began advertising on Spanish-language radio, “people were standing in the waiting room.” That’s a sign that the Latino population had been underserved by native-born doctors.

Computer industry giants in the United States lobby for more temporary and permanent visas for those they call the “best and the brightest” computer experts. Ronil Hira, of Howard University, a persistent critic of temporary visa abuses, argues that these foreign workers are in reality routine-level in skill, and often paid less than native-born Americans. Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer at Harvard Law School, found that since World War II there have been five cycles of alarm about talented worker shortages, leading to more permissive immigration and eventually a job market bust.

Do immigrants take our jobs? Yes and no. Over the long run, the impact is probably positive but hard to document. One thing is certain: no federal agency is able to answer this kind of question, and provide a labor market road map for immigration.

Peter Rousmaniere is a writer in Woodstock. His email address is He blogs about immigration issues at

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