The Economic Impacts of Mass Immigration into the United States: And the Proper Progressive Response

December 1, 2009 | Philip Cafaro | Policy Brief 09-2

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A few years ago, one hot summer day, I spent a morning taking turns with a posthole digger, making holes for a new wooden fence around the house my wife Kris and I had recently bought. I was helping Steve, who does odd jobs when he isn’t working for a small home builder here in Fort Collins, Colorado. Steve is a short, powerful man, pushing 50; bald, with deep blue eyes that light up with laughter when he talks. He drives an old, multi-colored pickup truck that looks like it’s held together with baling wire, but he can fix anything on it himself.

Kris and I had hired Steve to design and build the fence because he seemed like the best choice for a job calling for both creativity and hard physical work. We also knew we could trust him to keep track of his hours honestly and buy several thousand dollars worth of materials without inflating their price.

As we worked that day, Steve talked about how hard it could be to make ends meet working construction. He mentioned a bum knee and a bad back that he was trying to treat himself; he had no health insurance and it wouldn’t take many visits to the doctor to wipe out his profits from this fence job. We talked about the going rates for construction workers. I wondered whether he had ever asked his current employer for a raise, or for health benefits.

“Well, yeah,” Steve said. “I did. He told me he could hire two illegals for what he pays me. And I know it’s true.”1

Steve and I became friends over those postholes. I would like our economy to work for him and people like him — but it doesn’t seem to. He works more than full-time, lives modestly, and as far as I know has no expensive vices. Yet he is one serious injury or a few missed paychecks away from bankruptcy.

Steve is a good worker: honest, reliable, and intelligent. Over the years, he’s done plenty of hard, dirty, repetitive work — the kind of work, we often hear, that Americans are no longer willing to do. He’s also a real craftsman, imaginative and skilled at working with wood, stone, and plants. But he doesn’t push paper or drive a hard bargain. He’s not an “entrepreneur.” So he is poor and likely to stay poor. Why?

Recent Economic Trends

Some people buck trends; most of us ride them. Leaving aside the specifics of his personality and personal history, I’d say Steve is poor because people like him are poor. Americans with his level of education, working the kinds of jobs he works, don’t make a lot of money compared to people with similar jobs and educational levels in other wealthy countries. They have less job security and are less likely to have health insurance compared to people working similar jobs in the United States 40 years ago.

Americans don’t like to think about ourselves in class terms. But the simplest way to put it is to say that Steve is poor because his class is poor.

The trends are clear. Over the past 40 years, technological innovation and hard work have greatly increased overall economic productivity. In constant 2000 dollars, America’s gross domestic product was: $3,191 billion in 1965, $4,311 billion in 1975, $6,054 billion in 1985, $8,032 billion in 1995, and $11,049 billion in 2005. In other words, the U.S. economy generated about 350 percent more total wealth in 2005 than it did in 1965.2

However, poorer Americans have had a hard time gaining a fair share of this rapidly increasing pie. Again, the figures tell the story. Consider the table below.


While the poorest 20 percent of Americans increased their annual incomes by a measly $1,861 over this 35-year period, the wealthiest 20 percent increased their annual incomes by $70,090 — a 38-times greater increase. The wealthiest 5 percent of Americans did even better: Their incomes nearly doubled, for an increase of $140,346.

Whether we compare percentage increases or absolute increases in income, the results are striking. From 1968 to 2008, the poorest 20 percent of Americans increased their earnings $1,861 for an 18.9 percent increase; the richest 20 percent of Americans increased their earnings $70,090 for a 69.4 percent increase; and the richest 5 percent increased their earnings $140,346 for a 90.9 percent increase. In recent decades, it seems, the rich got richer and the poor stayed poor. When we consider increased work hours, decreased job security, and the swelling numbers of workers without health insurance, poor Americans appear worse off now than they were 40 years ago. All this, remember, in a country that is more than three and a half times richer than it was in 1965. (Additionally, since a big part of how well off people feel depends on comparisons with other community members, poor Americans feel poorer than they did back then, when differences in wealth were much less pronounced than they are today.)

Earlier in this article, I indicated that in recent decades poorer Americans had not succeeded in getting their fair share of America’s growing wealth. But what is a fair share? Would it be an equal share of this new wealth for everyone (or for everyone who works)? After all, Americans generally work hard, and we’re all in this immense interlocking economy together. Or do some of us — technological innovators and entrepreneurs, perhaps — deserve greater rewards for our greater economic productivity? Perhaps this second approach would best spur even more wealth creation (an important benefit, in many people’s eyes). Or a third option: might we with justice assign greater economic shares to the least affluent American workers, who arguably need these resources the most? Americans sometimes call ourselves a Christian nation. Perhaps we should follow Jesus’ example and show a preferential concern for the poor.

Here, I confess, I don’t know exactly what justice commands. As a progressive, I tend to support the third option, because if you think about it, the whole purpose of money and material goods is to help people live better lives. Increased wealth seems more likely to help poor people improve their lives than rich people. Shifting resources toward the poor allows them to meet important unmet needs; funneling more resources to the rich mostly just helps them satisfy their desires in more expensive or elaborate ways. Still, all three of these approaches have some initial plausibility and many able defenders. Perhaps the fairest approach would blend elements from all three options: Secure equal basic shares of this new wealth for all workers, but combine this with incentives for those who are more hardworking or productive, and special help for the less able or less fortunate.

I have never worked out a detailed position on the justice of economic distribution, in part because I don’t feel a burning desire to help create a perfectly fair economic order here in the United States. I don’t care much about money and material possessions and as a philosophy professor, I teach my students that they shouldn’t either. If you have enough to live a good life, I tell them, you can leave the piling up of superfluous wealth to those foolish enough to pursue that goal, and spend your time on more important and worthwhile things. Perfect economic fairness is not necessary.

The problem, though, is that many Americans do not have sufficient economic resources to live a good life. And while I don’t know what a perfectly fair distribution of the vast wealth we’ve created in recent decades might be, I feel confident that its actual distribution has been grossly unfair. Too many people who have worked hard and helped generate this increased wealth have seen their economic welfare decline, sometimes steeply. We might debate whether the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans deserve two, three, or even four times as great a reward as the poorest 20 percent, for their supposedly higher productivity. But no one can seriously argue that they are 38 times more productive and deserve 38 times the reward. No one really thinks that unless the wealthiest Americans are allowed to keep almost all the increased wealth generated by an expanding economy, productivity gains will cease. After all, such gains are largely a function of technological change and entrepreneurial innovation. They depend on the efforts of millions of engineers, scientists, and computer programmers and on entrepreneurs like Conrad Hilton and Sam Walton — not on Paris Hilton or Sam Walton’s grandchildren.

If you accept the commonsense view that the purpose of material wealth is to help people live good lives, then America’s wealth distribution over the past 40 years also appears highly inefficient. That’s because money, wonderful as it is, has what economists call “diminishing marginal utility” to help us improve our lives. Giving an extra million dollars to someone earning $10 million annually will probably not affect her happiness. But divide that million dollars into 50 $20,000 shares and add it to the annual incomes of 50 men and women currently earning the minimum wage of $15,000 per year, and you’ve just raised 50 families out of poverty.

Beyond any unfairness to particular Americans and beyond their manifest inefficiency, I believe recent economic trends are bad for our country in further ways. A winner-take-all economic philosophy is not consistent with the core American values of securing opportunities widely across society and rewarding individual hard work. If we truly believe in the dignity and worth of every individual, we cannot allow less wealthy Americans to sink into overworked, insecure poverty. If we truly believe in equality and democracy, we cannot accept ever-greater economic inequality, or the political impotence that mass poverty entails. We must reverse these trends.

Explaining Recent Trends

This startling juxtaposition — of greatly increased overall wealth with the nearly total failure of poorer Americans to benefit from it — is the great economic fact of our time. It cries out for some explanation. Most accounts focus on technological changes and the shift from manufacturing to a service economy. These trends, we are told, have devalued brute strength and manual labor and put a premium on “head work.” There seems to be some truth in this: The more formal education workers have, the better they have done economically in recent decades. But it doesn’t explain why less-educated American workers have fared so much worse than their Canadian, Japanese, and western European counterparts, whose economies have gone through the same changes during the same time.

Another common explanation points to weak American unions. From representing 30 percent of American workers in 1965, union membership has declined dramatically, to 12.5 percent today.3 Certainly fewer unions and the weak bargaining power of those remaining have limited workers’ ability to demand higher wages and benefits. But this explanation also raises as many questions as it answers. In particular, why have American unions declined so precipitously? Corruption and poor strategic decisions by union leaders (such as the failure to focus earlier on unionizing service employees) cannot be the whole story. And why have unions’ bargaining powers eroded, even where the workforce has remained unionized?

Economists tell us that another important factor in American workers’ declining fortunes has been mass immigration. Simply put, increased immigration has swamped American labor markets with less-skilled, less-educated workers. This has driven down wages for less-skilled, less-educated Americans.4

As most of us learned in Econ 101, in a market economy, wages are set by the mutual consent of (potential) employers and (potential) employees. Employers try to hire for as little as possible, to keep profits up. Workers bargain for the highest possible wages. What they finally agree to is largely determined by supply and demand. “Tighten” the labor market, by increasing demand for workers or lowering the supply, and wages and benefits increase. Lower demand or “flood” the market with workers, and wages and benefits decrease.

That’s the theory and empirical studies confirm that’s mostly how it works in real life. Anyone who has spent much time looking for work will not be surprised by this. It makes a difference whether employers are begging for workers, or workers are begging for work.

How does immigration fit into the picture? Starting with the Immigration and Nationality Act Revisions of 1965, the United States Congress greatly increased legal immigration levels, from around 250,000 per year to a little over one million per year today.5 Because the 1965 Revisions encouraged non-European immigration and “family reunification” while de-emphasizing literacy, education, and special skills requirements, most of these new immigrants were relatively unskilled and uneducated. So are the great majority of illegal immigrants in America, who currently number from 12 to 15 million people. One study found that from 1980 to 1995, immigration increased the number of college graduates in the U.S. workforce 4 percent while increasing the number of high-school dropouts in the workforce 21 percent.6

The upshot has been that labor markets for less skilled workers have been flooded with workers, driving down wages and allowing employers to slash benefits. Doctors, lawyers, and computer software engineers have done pretty well in recent years. Truck drivers, butchers, cleaning women, and bus boys? Not so well.

Of course the American economy is complex. It would be a mistake to dismiss all the other possible factors in working-class wage stagnation over the past four decades and just assert that mass immigration is the cause. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to discount immigration’s effects right off the bat. Consider one industry where it seems to have made a big difference.


My friend Steve grew up in Dubuque, Iowa. After graduating from high school in 1973, he went to work in a packing house there, “cutting cows.” Steve remembers the work as repetitive and boring, but he stayed on for seven years. Dubuque Packers, Inc., like most of the American meatpacking industry, was unionized and paid high wages: from $16 to $20 an hour for most jobs at the plant.

“People lived real well,” Steve recalls. “They had boats and second homes” on the little lakes that dot east-central Iowa. They also had the time to enjoy them, since work hours were limited by contract. Being unionized, their jobs were also secure — or so Steve and his coworkers thought.

Working in a slaughterhouse, then as now, was hard and exhausting. But in the 1970s, it paid pretty well throughout the United States, partly as a result of union drives in previous decades. In today’s dollars, wages averaged $23.60 per hour at U.S. meatpacking plants in 1975, and health and retirement benefits were generous.7 The work may have been difficult, but it kept men without college degrees and their families in a comfortable, middle class existence. Workers saw these as good, permanent jobs and turnover at the plants was low.

Leaving aside the animals involved, the system worked well for all concerned. Workers got steady, well-paid work and a say in working conditions. Meatpacking companies turned a profit. And American consumers bought beef, pork, and chicken at some of the lowest prices in the world.

Today slaughterhouse jobs average $13.30 per hour — 44 percent less than they did 40 years ago — and salaries start as low as $6 per hour. Benefits have been cut industry-wide, with decent health insurance rare and good retirement plans non-existent. Workers are highly transient. What happened?

Well, apparently corporate profits weren’t as high as they could be, which meant they weren’t high enough.8 Starting in the 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s, big companies like ConAgra and IBP demanded steep wage cuts and other concessions. Small companies, like Dubuque Packers, followed suit or were driven out of business. In plant after plant, town after town, the companies closed down plants and locked out workers, either shifting production elsewhere or bringing in outside workers to replace union members who balked. Workers staged dozens of strikes and fought tenaciously, in some cases for years. In every instance, they were forced to make large concessions, or risk losing their jobs altogether.

The meatpackers’ union-busting tactics worked, because unlike many countries, American labor laws allow companies to permanently replace striking workers and Democratic politicians have failed to defend workers’ rights by changing the law. But crucially, it also worked because the companies had a large supply of poor, unskilled immigrant workers to use as strikebreakers. Just as Italians and Slavs “fresh off the boat” had been used to thwart union building in Chicago slaughterhouses at the turn of the 20th century (as memorably chronicled in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle), packing companies used Hispanics and Southeast Asians to defeat unions in the 1970s and 1980s.

Item: In 1981, the Hygrade hog-processing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, locked out 500 unionized workers, replacing them with Laotians, Vietnamese, Mexicans, and other immigrants. The company broke the union, but a few old union members swallowed their pride and later were hired back at half-wages. Since then the plant has relied almost exclusively on immigrant workers. Few of them know that Hygrade once provided its experienced line workers with six-week paid vacations annually.9

Item: In 1980, the Montfort Company of Greeley, Colorado, locked out 1,400 workers and closed their main meatpacking plant. They reopened two years later, with 40 percent wage cuts and even greater cuts in benefits. In 1987, Montfort did the same thing at their 400-person “portion foods” plant. In both cases, bringing in immigrants as replacement workers was a key part of company strategy.10 Union representative Steve Clasen recalled that throughout the 1980s, as immigrants took over more jobs at Montfort plants, “the company would use migrants to justify keeping the wage structure low.”

Item: In Austin, Minnesota, good wages allowed the Hormel Company’s workers and managers to live side-by-side in middle class neighborhoods during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. But by the 1980s, the Hormel family decided the company could no longer buck industry trends, and demanded steep wage cuts. Workers staged a bitter, year-and-a-half-long strike to preserve their standard of living, but were crushed. Over 1,000 workers lost their jobs. Minnesota had a strong tradition of labor solidarity, so it was particularly important that Hormel could count on bringing in hundreds of recent immigrants with no historic ties to the area and with few other economic options. The Hormel strike was widely viewed as the deathblow to organized labor in the meatpacking industry.11

(Here a brief word may be in order about “diversity.” The 1965 Immigration Act Revisions are often praised for making America more racially and ethnically diverse. But as slaughterhouse workers became more diverse, they often found themselves speaking different languages, hampering basic communication and undermining worker solidarity. Workers who don’t speak the same language find it harder to make common cause. Workers who don’t speak English may not know their rights under U.S. law. Workers from other countries may not have a tradition of standing up to authority, while those who are in the United States illegally — a majority in some U.S. meatpacking plants — are not in any position to do so. Like most progressives, I value diversity. But no matter what diversity proponents may wish was the case, in the meatpacking industry, diversity has helped management divide and conquer workers.)

The stories at Storm Lake, Greeley, and Austin were repeated again and again across the United States. After awhile, the mere threat to bring in immigrant workers could force concessions from the unions. Workers at one plant or company who successfully resisted wage reductions, work speed-ups, or decertification of their unions were undermined when these measures succeeded elsewhere. Today the unions are mostly gone and those that remain have little bargaining power. Each individual employee must take whatever the company offers, or take a hike.

What does it mean when a job pays $10 or $12 an hour rather than $20 or $25? Dad may have to work a second job, or put in lots of overtime, to make ends meet. Mom may have to work, too, rather than being able to stay home and look after young children. Everyone is more tired. There is less leisure time and less time for being with family. Lower wages make it more difficult to save money; combined with reduced benefits, there is less economic cushion if things go wrong. So the family as a whole has less security and a lower quality of life. A job that once supported a middle class family has been replaced with one that keeps a family in poverty.

The new jobs not only pay much less, they’re also more dangerous, since workers no longer negotiate hours, breaks or working conditions, and cannot effectively challenge managers and supervisors who cut corners on safety. Injury rates have jumped since the 1970s, as companies have increased “line speeds” up to the limits of physical endurance.12 According to OSHA, slaughterhouse work is now the most dangerous major occupation in the United States.

Today meatpacking jobs are unattractive, even to poor immigrants. Turnover is high: 60-70 percent annually industry-wide and an astounding 700 to 800 percent per year at some plants.13 This turnover costs the companies money, and if it were harder to find new workers, companies would have more incentive to improve wages and working conditions. But with high immigration rates, there are always newcomers to fill the jobs. Wages stay low. Company profits, however, are higher than ever.


The transformation I’ve just described in the meatpacking industry signifies a tremendous, ongoing transfer of wealth from workers to owners. In the middle of the greatest sustained increase in overall wealth in the nation’s history, meatpacking companies successfully drove tens of thousands of American workers, performing grueling, necessary work, from middle class prosperity into poverty. It never would have been possible without the 1965 Revisions to the Immigration and Nationality Act. The packing companies could not have replaced tens of thousands of locked-out union members without the ready availability of tens of thousands of poor immigrants desperate for work.

Similarly, low wages and dangerous working conditions could not persist in the meatpacking industry without continuing high levels of immigration. Over and over, today’s packinghouse workers describe themselves as “expendable” in the eyes of management. And they are. As things now stand, it’s easier and more profitable to use workers up and get new ones, rather than treating them as valued assets (much less as fellow human beings). This may seem like “the harsh logic of the market.” Actually, it’s the harsh logic of a flooded labor market; flooded, in this case, by the deliberate decisions of successive U.S. Congresses, which set annual immigration levels, and successive presidential administrations, which have mostly declined to enforce immigration laws.

In Steve’s case, the company lowered the boom in 1979. “They claimed they couldn’t hang on with a union,” Steve remembers, and with the bigger companies slashing labor costs and aggressively undercutting their competitors’ prices, they may have been right. Dubuque Packers locked out their workers and closed the plant for a year, then reopened with a new, non-union, poorly paid, largely immigrant workforce. Steve and his co-workers held out for a while, but every week saw fewer and fewer walking the picket line. Eventually, they all gave up. Many left their home state for good; Steve headed west to Colorado. When he first arrived in Fort Collins, in 1980, he looked for work at the nearby Montfort slaughterhouses. Ten or even five years earlier, this might have been a good bet. Now Montfort, in the process of breaking its own union, was offering even lower pay than Dubuque Packers. Steve went into construction and agricultural work, instead.

Jobs Americans Will Do

Meatpacking is an interesting example, because it’s the kind of hard, dirty, physical work that we are often told “Americans won’t do,” necessitating immigrant labor. In fact, 40 years ago this work was done almost exclusively by native-born Americans. It took extraordinary efforts by “Big Meat” to make meatpacking a job that is often done by recent immigrants and others desperate for work. Today Americans do try to avoid the industry, but that’s mostly because it pays poorly and is so dangerous. Why take a hard, risky job if it doesn’t pay much better than one that is easier and safer? And even today, most slaughterhouse workers are native-born American citizens — now working for much less than the previous generation of meatpackers.14

Not only is meatpacking a job that Americans will do. Barring a mass conversion to vegetarianism, meatpacking is also a job that someone has to do. Recent experience teaches us that the American economy can perform just fine with slaughterhouse workers making solid middle class wages or poverty-level wages; earning good benefits or few benefits; working under safe conditions or dangerous conditions. Which alternatives should we prefer?

I’m a progressive. My view is that regardless of who performs them, slaughterhouse jobs in America should be as safe as possible and carry high wages and comprehensive benefits. Well-off professionals whose work is intrinsically rewarding should be especially grateful to people like meat cutters, garbage men, and cleaning ladies who do society’s tough, dangerous, or monotonous work. We know this work needs to be done. We know that many of our less-educated fellow-citizens wind up doing it and need to do it, to earn a living and to secure their own self-respect. So we should do all we can to improve wages and working conditions in these jobs. With labor unions weak and Democratic politicians confused and timid, perhaps the best thing we can do for our fellow workers is to help tighten labor markets, so they can negotiate the best possible wages and working conditions for themselves. That means reducing immigration (and probably paying a little more for chicken wings or hamburger meat at the supermarket).

Now I realize the value of those same tough, dangerous, monotonous jobs to new immigrants from Mexico or Cambodia, even at significantly lower wages. I realize the value of their remittances to relatives back home. It’s only honest to acknowledge that if we lower immigration levels, some would-be immigrants and their families will lose out.

However, it seems to me that as Americans, our first responsibility is to create an economically just society that provides decent opportunities for all of our fellow citizens. If our economy also creates jobs that can benefit new arrivals, so much the better. But we have no right to pursue immigration policies that sacrifice the vital economic interests of poor Americans in order to help poor foreigners. There is something morally obtuse in a view that says, “let’s spread your (native working-class workers’) wealth around to poor immigrants, while I (successful, well-educated professional) reap the benefits of cheaper gardeners, nannies, and lawn-care service and restaurant meals — while enjoying a profound feeling of superiority for my enlightened views about immigration.”

America is a wealthy nation, comparatively speaking. Arguably, Americans should look for ways to share our wealth so that it benefits poor people overseas. But we shouldn’t do it on the backs of those least able to afford it here in our own country.That is unjust to our fellow citizens, who have a special claim on us to set policies that increase their welfare. And in the case of mass immigration, it is helping create a less egalitarian society, with an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. If we’re not careful, the United States may end up looking like the crummy plutocracies from which so many of our immigrants are fleeing.

Some readers may find such a possibility preposterous. America is the land of opportunity, they believe, and will always remain so. Perhaps. But during the past 40 years, the United States has become a much less egalitarian society, with greater income stratification and less economic mobility between classes. In other words, we’ve become more like Mexico and Brazil. Let me ask the optimists reading this article what, exactly, they think is going to change, to slow or reverse these trends. Are corporate executives going to undergo a mass conversion to humanitarianism and increase workers’ wages and benefits, solely out of the goodness of their hearts? Are the laws of supply and demand going to reverse themselves (like the magnetic poles are supposed to have done, occasionally, in past geological ages) so that increasing the number of workers drives wages up rather than down? I don’t think so. If we want to reverse these negative economic trends, the evidence suggests that we must tighten up labor markets for unskilled workers.

Whatever you think America owes the rest of the world and however much you may admire (as I do) immigrants’ courage, resourcefulness, and work ethic, it seems wrong to help poor foreigners in ways that harm working-class American citizens. It seems doubly wrong to say, as current policy in effect says: From now on, the 120,000 line workers in a major branch of American industry will be a permanent underclass. No matter how wealthy America becomes, they will continue to make low wages. When their bodies are damaged or wear out, we will send them packing and get new ones. In fact, they will be paid just enough and treated just well enough, so that people from the poorest nations on Earth will continue to take these jobs.

This has long been America’s de facto policy toward agricultural labor. In the past 40 years, it has infected meatpacking and many other areas of our economy. But watch out, my fellow progressives! Accept this approach and we give up all hope of creating an economically just society. Accept this approach and we cede the whole economic realm to the forces of reaction and inequity. And I see no reason to think the barbarians will stop at the slaughterhouses and the factories, and not gallop on to the offices and cubicles where so many of us work, hoping to find the prosperity and security that our blue-collar fellow citizens once enjoyed, for a few decades in the 20th century. As the rest of the world becomes more educated and learns English, we may see more and more white-collar jobs “proletarianized.” If Upton Sinclair’s “jungle” is once again a reality, can Charles Dickens’ Bob Cratchit be far behind?

As for my friend Steve, he has worked many jobs since he moved to Colorado, in construction, agriculture, landscaping, and nursing, among others. But he has never held a steady job that paid as well as his first job out of high school, with Dubuque Packers. And I don’t think he ever will.


What happened in meatpacking in recent decades has happened, or is happening, across many areas of the economy: agriculture, landscaping, restaurant work, housekeeping, and janitor services. In one sector after another where immigrants have come to dominate employment, wages have been driven down and benefits have been lost. This process is largely complete in meatpacking — although curbing immigration could, once again, make it possible for slaughterhouse workers to organize and improve their lot. (In the aftermath of recent ICE raids which caught thousands of illegal workers at six of their plants, Swift and Company increased wages on average 8 percent and offered hefty signing bonuses in order to find new workers and keep their plants running. Both native-born American workers and legal immigrants benefitted greatly from these actions.)15 We can see the same process of “de-middle-classification” halfway complete in the construction industry today, as I recently learned in dozens of interviews at construction sites across Colorado.

Consider Tom’s story. I interviewed him in Longmont, north of Denver, eating a 6:30 breakfast at a café out by the interstate.16 Fit and alert, Tom looks to be in his mid-40s. Born and raised in Denver, he’s been spraying custom finishes on drywall for 25 years, and has had his own company since 1989. “At one point we had 12 people running three trucks,” he says. Now his business is just he and his wife. “Things have changed,” he says.

Although it has since cooled off considerably, residential and commercial construction were booming when I interviewed Tom. The main “thing that’s changed” is the number of immigrants in construction. When Tom got into it 25 years ago, construction used almost all native-born workers. Today, estimates of the number of immigrant workers in northern Colorado range from 50 percent to 70 percent of the total construction workforce. Some trades, like pouring concrete and framing, use immigrant labor almost exclusively. Come in with an “all-white” crew of framers, another small contractor tells me, and people do a double take.

Tom’s an independent contractor, bidding on individual jobs. But, he says: “guys are coming in with bids that are impossible.” After his many years in the business, “no way they can be as efficient in time and materials as me.” The difference has to be in the cost of labor. “They’re not paying the taxes and insurance that I am,” he says. Insurance, workmen’s compensation, and taxes add about 40 percent to the cost of legally employed workers. When you add the lower wages that immigrants are often willing to take, there is plenty of opportunity for competing contractors to underbid Tom and still make a tidy profit. He no longer bids on the big new construction projects, and jobs in individual, custom-built houses are also becoming harder to find.

“I’ve gone in to spray a house, and there’s a guy sleeping in the bathtub, with a microwave set up in the kitchen. I’m thinking, ‘you moved into this house for two weeks to hang and paint it, you’re gonna get cash from somebody, and he’s gonna pick you up and drive you to the next one.’”

In this way, some trades in construction are turning into the equivalent of migrant labor in agriculture. Workers don’t have insurance or workmen’s compensation, so if they are hurt or worn out on the job, they are simply discarded and replaced. Meanwhile, the builders and contractors higher up the food chain keep more of the profits for themselves. “The quality of life has changed drastically,” says Tom. “I don’t want to live like that. I want to go home and live with my family.”

Do immigrants perform jobs Americans don’t want to do? I ask. “My job is undesirable,” Tom replies. “It’s dirty, it’s messy, it’s dusty. I learned right away that because of that, the opportunity is available to make money in it. That job has served me well” — at least up until recently. He now travels as far away as Wyoming and southern Colorado to find work. “We’re all fighting for scraps right now.”

Over the years, Tom has built a reputation for quality work and efficient and prompt service (as I confirmed in interviews with others in the business). Until recently, that was enough to secure a good living. Now though, like a friend of his who recently folded his small landscaping business because he “just can’t bid ‘em low enough,” Tom is thinking of leaving the business. He’s also struggling to find a way to keep up the mortgage payments on his house.


Jeff, another one of my contacts in construction, has also seen immigration’s impacts on the industry up close.17 He’s been hanging drywall in new houses for 30 years, the last 21 running his own business. “We pride ourselves on quality and reliability,” Jeff tells me; he still works for some of the same builders as when he started out. He’s always had plenty of work, although he’s “never gotten real big.” Currently he has five men working for him full time. He warms up quickly to the topic of illegal workers in construction.

“I’ve got no qualms about people coming here,” Jeff says, “It’s the American dream.” But when there are millions of people here illegally, “that’s just wrong. They’re breaking the law. Period.” He says other small contractors and native workers agree with him, something my own interviews confirm. The bigger companies, though, are “a totally different story. That’s all they’re hiring” — and not because of their strong commitment to ethnic diversity.

Hanging drywall is typically piecework. Jeff pays his workers $8-$10 per sheet hung, with his total costs running $14-$15 a sheet. Some other contractors pay their illegal workers $3-$4 a sheet, in cash. “I’m fully insured, liability, unemployment insurance,” Jeff says. “I guarantee ya, half of [the big contractors’] labor force is not insured.” So it’s pretty easy for less scrupulous contractors to outbid Jeff and still make a profit. He says he doesn’t even show up anymore to bid for the big jobs with mega-home builders. His work is now mostly on expensive custom houses, where quality work can still earn a premium.

“I think it comes down to nothing but greed,” Jeff says, a statement I will hear more than once as I talk to construction workers, landscapers, and cleaning women who have been priced out of their former jobs. “They see a lot of dollar signs in front of their faces.” “You’re in business to make money, I know that,” he says. But that shouldn’t be everything. “I’m making a living, but I’m also doing the right thing,” by hiring legal workers and paying them a living wage.

Loyalty to his workers, who average eight years working for him, is important to Jeff. In comparison, the big companies go through workers “like water,” he says. Loyalty to his country is also important. He worries that Americans are “selling our souls, just to get a few things cheaper.” “I’d be willing to spend more” to help American families earn decent wages, he asserts — another comment I’ve often heard from people discussing low wages, in industries from meatpacking to housecleaning.

Do immigrants perform jobs that Americans don’t want to do? I ask. Answer: “That’s a flat-out false statement. In the construction industry, they’re taking over our jobs.”

Question: Does immigration push down wages? Answer: according to Jeff, “there’s a lot of complaining out there” about reduced wages. He mentions a former employee, a great worker, now working for South Valley Drywall, one of the big outfits in Denver, that only pays $3 a sheet. “[The large companies] know they can get the labor cheaper,” Jeff says. That drives down wages. It’s that simple.

Jeff is starting to think about retirement. He mentions that when he discussed the issue recently with one of his longtime employees, Paul, he “got a worried look on his face. Paul knows that if he has to get a new job, his pay will be less.”

“Who wants to go to work for less than fair wages?” Jeff asks.

Or for less than you made 20 years ago? I add.

“Exactly. You think you’re climbing the ladder in life ….”

Before I leave, Jeff tours me through the nearly finished home he’s working on. The drywall work is very well done.


Men like Jeff and Tom want to preserve a decent middle class life for themselves, their families, and their fellow workers. They make it clear that they aren’t asking for handouts, or special treatment. But they see opportunities drying up or shifting away from people like themselves in construction — and they don’t see politicians doing anything about it. When I mention that I find it odd that many unions and Democratic politicians support increased immigration, given their historic roles in defending the interests of American workers, Tom and Jeff have little to say. They simply don’t expect any economic help from unions or the Democratic Party. (Much less from progressive academics. Let’s face it. Today, academics’ fondness for “otherness” embraces lesbian Haitian poets a lot more easily than native-born white construction workers.)

All this is not just a matter of lost wages and earnings. It also involves losing relationships with long-time clients, when they make “the jump” to using cheaper contractors who use immigrant labor. It’s about declining quality, as cheaper but less-skilled drywallers take over more of the work, and anyone competing with them is forced to cut corners. Personal relationships and craftsmanship, too, are being eroded by “market forces,” as the economists say, or “greed,” to use more old-fashioned moral language. “The country’s selling itself for money,” says Jeff.

Tom and Jeff blame greedy contractors, out-of-touch politicians, and Americans generally for letting immigration get out of hand. One group they don’t blame, interestingly enough, is immigrants themselves, even those here illegally.

Jeff, who’s taken several hunting trips to northern Mexico, describes seeing people in Sonora living in “less than a hut. They’re so used to being so poor, that anything they can make here, they’re happy to make,” he says. “A trailer is a big step up.”

Tom recalls his son, then in his early 20s and working for him, talking one day about the “damn Mexicans” who were pricing them out of jobs. “Don’t generalize,” Tom told his son. “If you were born in Mexico, and had to fight for every piece of food, you would do the same thing. You would come here [too].”

Limits to Idealism

In the words of Harvard economist George Borjas, a leading authority on the economic impacts of immigration, any immigration policy will have winners and losers.18 People with more job opportunities and people with fewer; folks with more money in their pockets and folks with less. This is because individuals affected by immigration have different, often conflicting, interests. Borjas notes that large employers generally support high levels of immigration precisely because they drive down workers’ wages.19 If higher immigration levels did not decrease wages, the benefits to employers would disappear and they would have no reason to push for more immigration.

Any immigration policy will have winners and losers. And in deciding what immigration policy to set as a society, it’s important to realize the limits to personal generosity in all of this. A big part of Jeff’s sense of his own success is that over the years, his business has helped his workers — who are also his friends — earn good wages and support their families. But there are limits to what Jeff can pay his workers before he prices himself out of a job. He is generous, but it is necessarily a circumscribed and comparative generosity. Wages in a capitalist system are (mostly) set by the market.

This holds true for even the smallest, most personal transactions. My wife Kris and I tried to pay Steve generously for building our fence. But our sense of what was generous was based largely on what other people were paying for similar work. Even if we had wanted to give Steve more than we did for building our fence, he wasn’t looking for charity; in fact, he prides himself on setting “a fair price” for his work. And that price isn’t set by us sitting down and reading economic theory or political philosophy together, or figuring out a formula for what is fair, but by the market.

Progressives should want markets working for workers, not against them. George Borjas’ research indicates that during recent decades, on average, each 10 percent increase in the number of workers in a particular field has decreased wages in that field by 3.5 percent.20 So Americans need to think long and hard about immigration levels. We can help some poor foreigners by letting them come here and work. But such help necessarily comes at the expense of American workers like Steve and Tom.

Today the average wage for workers across all the construction trades in Colorado is $12.30 an hour.21 In Mexico, the average wage for construction workers in 2001 was 105 pesos a day — $7.68.22 If we allow these two labor markets to merge, both economic theory and recent experience suggest that wages in America’s construction industry will decline sharply. Would that be good for our country?

Interestingly, and perhaps hopefully, many of the people I’ve talked to about immigration resist the idea that markets have a determining influence over their lives. Tom and Steve take pride in their work — it’s not just a paycheck — and they seem to find their relationships with their fellow workers and clients as meaningful as the money they make. Jeff pays his workers generously at higher than the “going rate.” Yet we are all caught up in the market. If we can transcend it in various ways, it also constrains us.

Tom was able to build strong relationships with contractors and a thriving business due to his own abilities and hard work. But one by one, those relationships are fraying, as contractors choose to “go cheap.” In a swamped labor market, he probably won’t be able to keep his business going. That’s a reality that Tom has to face; he doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring it if he wants to avoid personal bankruptcy. Progressive policymakers and theorists thinking about immigration policy are less constrained by reality and often imagine that all the negative impacts of swamped labor markets can be mitigated through government actions. (Example: “we’ll have special panels, which will make sure that immigrant workers are hired at prevailing wages.” Never mind that the only way to actually raise wages is for tight labor markets to drive “prevailing wages” up.) They would probably take a more realistic approach to mass immigration’s impacts if their own wages and livelihoods were at stake.


Any immigration policy will have winners and losers. If we keep this crucial insight in mind, we can avoid a lot of the confusion that impedes attempts to get to the bottom of this issue. So let’s ask a simple question. Who wins and who loses, economically, from our current mass immigration regime in the United States?

Three groups are big economic winners. First, immigrants themselves, who enjoy greater wealth and economic opportunities than if they had stayed home. Here is a list of America’s ten largest immigration “source” countries, in order of importance:23

  1. Mexico
  2. China
  3. The Philippines
  4. India
  5. Cuba
  6. El Salvador
  7. Vietnam
  8. South Korea
  9. Canada
  10. The Dominican Republic

These ten countries provide well over half of all immigrants into the United States; Mexico alone accounts for almost 30 percent. With the exceptions of Canada and South Korea, they are all much poorer than the United States. Many of them have gross systemic corruption and poor public education systems. Most are overpopulated, with large cohorts of unemployed and underemployed young people. All this makes it hard for the average man or woman to thrive economically in Mexico or El Salvador, China or the Philippines, Vietnam or India. Even where progress is being made, opportunities are much greater in America for average people without connections.

A second group benefitting from mass immigration is employers and business owners.24 For example, all the landscapers I’ve interviewed in northern Colorado are enthusiastic proponents of mass immigration, and so are their national professional organizations, which lobby vigorously for immigration increases in Washington. Immigration allows landscapers to lower their labor costs and pocket more profit per job. Lower labor costs may also allow them to lower costs to customers, increasing the number of customers who can afford their services and allowing their businesses to grow — also increasing profits. A similar logic prevails among employers across many sectors of the U.S. economy, from restaurants and hotels to software and Internet companies (Bill Gates is an enthusiastic proponent of increasing visas for high-tech computer workers).

The bigger the business, the greater an employer’s potential winnings from mass immigration. A small Colorado landscaper might be a few thousand dollars richer this year because of mass immigration. The Montfort family, which owns large blocks of shares in Colorado’s largest meatpacking operations, is doubtless many millions of dollars richer.

A third group benefitting from mass immigration, overlapping with the previous group, is large stockholders.25 The more stock an individual owns in publicly traded companies (which benefit from mass immigration), the larger his or her potential winnings from a growing economy. With tens of millions of Americans invested in the stock market through their retirement accounts, there are tens of millions of potential beneficiaries here, but the biggest benefits are reserved for the wealthy. If you are a teacher or construction worker, a nurse or a policeman, what you gain in the stock market through immigration is probably swallowed up by what you give back through having your wages driven down by increased labor competition. But if you are truly wealthy and don’t depend on a wage for most of your income, it’s a very different story!

Interestingly, then, the greatest beneficiaries of mass immigration include the very poor (from other countries) and the very rich (who are mostly homegrown).


Who are the big losers from high levels of immigration? Once again, three groups stand out.

First, working-class Americans, whose modest wages are driven down in economic sectors with lots of immigrant workers. Meatpackers, supermarket checkout clerks, and janitors. Construction workers, secretaries, and nurses aides. Backhoe operators, waiters, and garbage men. Mechanics, roofers, and day laborers. These folks may see some relief through lower prices for consumer goods. But generally this does not make up for smaller paychecks and less job security.26

Recent studies suggest that some professionals have also taken a wage hit from immigration; the laws of supply and demand hold for computer programmers and engineers, as well as janitors and cleaning women.27 But higher salaries and lower numbers of immigrants have insulated professionals from the harsher effects of immigrant competition. After all, between 1990 and 2000, immigration increased the number of high school dropouts in the United States 21 percent while increasing the number of all other workers by 5 percent.28

Immigration has had very different effects on wages among different classes of Americans. According to one study, during the 1980s and 90s, immigration reduced the wages of high school dropouts 7.4 percent; high school graduates 2.1 percent; workers with some college experience 2.3 percent; and college graduates 3.6 percent.29 Strikingly, the least-educated workers suffered more than double the loss of the most-educated workers, as a percentage of their salaries. And since the salaries of high school dropouts average less than half the salaries for college graduates, these percentage losses translate into even greater losses in quality of life. The college graduates’ 3.6 percent decrease might mean the difference between buying a BMW or a Chevy, or whether or not to take a European vacation. The high school dropout’s 7.4 percent pay cut might mean she can’t afford to rent an apartment in a safer part of town or fix her teeth. (By the way, if you think that it’s inevitable that the poorest workers shoulder the largest burdens of mass immigration, you’re wrong. Canada and Australia also have high immigration levels, allowing in even more immigrants than the United States, as a percentage of their populations. But since they focus on bringing in skilled workers, wage competition has fallen primarily on wealthier Canadians and Australians (doctors and engineers, rather than construction workers) and immigration has not played the same role in increasing inequality as in America.)

African-Americans comprise a second important group harmed by mass immigration. This is not surprising, given that they are generally less educated, less skilled, and poorer than their white counterparts. African-Americans are therefore more likely than whites to compete directly in immigrant-rich sectors of the economy. The most detailed study to date of immigration’s impacts on African-Americans found “a strong correlation between immigration, black wages, black employment rates, and black incarceration rates.”30 Its authors conclude: “Our analysis suggests that a 10-percent immigrant-induced increase in the supply of a particular skill group reduced the black wage by 4.0 percent, lowered the employment rate of black men by 3.5 percentage points, and increased the incarceration rate of blacks by almost a full percentage point.”31

Vernon Briggs, Professor of Labor Economics at Cornell University, points out that African-Americans are more likely to suffer unemployment than the average citizen, partly because unemployment tends to be higher among the poor. In February 2008, he notes, “the national unemployment rate was 4.8 percent, but the unemployment rate for adults without a high school diploma was 7.3 percent” and the unemployment rate for blacks without a diploma topped 12 percent.32 Because most immigrants seek less-skilled work, where the black labor force is disproportionately concentrated, “there is little doubt that there is significant overlap in competition for jobs in this sector of the labor market.” “Given the inordinately high unemployment rates for low-skilled black workers,” writes Briggs, “it is obvious that the major losers in this competition are low-skilled black workers.”33

Younger, urban African-American residents also lose out because mass immigration alleviates the need to train them for more skilled work. “Cast down your bucket where you are,” pleaded Booker T. Washington to the nation’s industrialists, nearly a century and a quarter ago. Like Frederick Douglass before him and W.E.B. DuBois and A. Philip Randolph afterwards, Washington urged American employers to hire African-Americans, rather than import workers from abroad.34 Today corporate leaders in high tech industries speak of the urgent need for a more educated workforce. But rather than mounting a serious effort to train minority children for these “jobs of the future,” they prefer to import workers from other countries. It’s cheaper and quicker. It seems likely, however, that if “the economy” needed more educated workers and could only find them among America’s own young people, we would never tolerate failing inner city schools. Immigration permits us the “luxury” of allowing this resource to run to waste.

A third group harmed by mass immigration is previous immigrants. Because they are less educated and less skilled than the average American worker, immigrants disproportionately incur the economic costs of continuing immigration. Of course, without earlier immigration, they wouldn’t be here in the first place. But once established, immigrants have a strong interest in limiting further immigration and the wage depression that goes along with it.

This explains a surprising fact: When polled, immigrants support reducing immigration at almost as high a rate as native citizens. So do Hispanics, whose ranks of course include a high proportion of immigrants. If you want to increase your wages at the carpet factory or the meatpacking plant, you know that a tight labor market is your friend.

I recall a recent interview with Paul, the foreman of a large planned subdivision in Fort Collins, Colorado.35 We talked right after a local crackdown on illegal workers in the construction industry. His current framing crew, immigrants based out of Albuquerque, all had papers, he said, and they “were all asking for more money.” “My foundation guy [the subcontractor in charge of pouring concrete foundations] says his guys who are legal went to work somewhere else, where they paid them $4 an hour more.” Paul and his subcontractors were scrambling to increase wages, in order to hold on to good workers and keep their project on schedule. With two-thirds of his workers immigrants, most of the benefits of the crackdown on illegal workers were going to other, legal immigrants.

Basic Fairness

Mass immigration’s biggest winners, then, at least among U.S. citizens, are the wealthy, while its biggest losers are found disproportionately among the nation’s poor. Under our current immigration system, the less our fellow citizens can afford it, the larger the burden we ask them to shoulder in paying the inevitable costs of mass immigration. On the face of it, this seems unjust.

Of course, citizens are not the only group with an important stake in U.S. immigration policy. There are immigrants themselves and would-be immigrants around the world: people who may greatly improve their lives by moving to the United States. Progressives, with our preferential concern for the poor, naturally want to help these people. We often support mass immigration for that very reason.

But if the preceding analysis holds true, mass immigration is a bad way to help poor foreigners, precisely because it unfairly burdens America’s poor, rather than asking more from wealthy Americans, who can better afford to help.

Think of it this way. Let’s say you are a political progressive, who believes the United States — a wealthy nation, after all — can and should do more to help the world’s poor. However many billions of dollars President Obama’s administration devoted to foreign aid and global anti-poverty measures this year, you believe the United States should devote two, four, or even ten times as much money to such measures. Well, whatever the figure, if you are a progressive, you do not want that money coming solely out of the pockets of poor and middle class Americans, with a disproportionate amount coming from the poor. You would never support a special tax to help poor people overseas that broke down as follows: 5 percent tax on income for Americans making less than $30,000 a year, 2 percent for people making $30,000-$60,000 per year and 0 percent on those making more than $60,000 a year. But that, effectively, is the kind of regressive “tax” on wages and benefits that high levels of immigration impose on poorer Americans today. So progressives shouldn’t support it.

Neither, really, should people elsewhere on the political spectrum. However we define our responsibilities toward the world’s poor and however much we as a nation are willing to spend to help them, Americans should all be able to agree that we should not meet our responsibilities on the backs of our own poor citizens. That would be unjust — and it is why current U.S. immigration policy is unjust.

Increasing Inequality

Another argument for reducing immigration into the United States is that current policies are widening income inequality within our society. This is not the same point as the previous one, that current immigration policies are unjust because they benefit wealthy Americans and concentrate harms among poor Americans. My argument now is that in addition to this injustice toward the poor, increased economic inequality is bad for our society as a whole. It is bad most simply because Americans believe in a fundamental moral equality between people and are committed to a democratic political process. When economic inequalities become too great, the differing opportunities available to rich and poor make a mockery of fundamental moral equality. When economic inequalities become too great and are allowed free rein within the political process, the resulting power differential between rich and poor makes a mockery of democracy.

I am not advocating for complete economic equality. Even if it were possible, there is no conceivable need to try to ensure that everyone makes the same salary, has the same income, or owns the same kind, number, or quality of possessions. No, all I want to say is that when individuals are driven into insecure poverty, their opportunities for personal development, political action, and full and equal participation in society are diminished. This is happening widely today in our society. When certain individuals are allowed to concentrate and deploy large amounts of wealth, they will tend to dominate their fellow citizens. For these reasons, economic inequality must be limited in a society like ours with a commitment to equality of opportunity and political participation.

Mass immigration widens economic inequality in the United States in three main ways. First, as we have seen, mass immigration makes rich Americans richer and poor Americans poorer. The wages of many American workers have stagnated for the past 40 years and wages for the poorest Americans have actually declined in real terms. During this same time, the income of the wealthiest Americans has skyrocketed. Not all of this income disparity can be laid at the door of mass immigration — but some of it can.

Second, mass immigration, at least as practiced in the United States, provides a continual influx of poor people. By increasing the numbers of poor people much faster than the numbers of middle class or rich people, large-scale immigration directly increases income inequality.

This is one of those obvious points rarely mentioned in popular or scholarly analyses of persistent poverty in America. Once a year or so, my hometown newspaper, the Fort Collins Coloradoan, reliably runs a series of articles on the growth of poverty in our region, complete with earnest editorials about how residents should remain committed to “fighting” poverty. It never mentions that many of the people swelling the ranks of the poor in Colorado are recent arrivals. They are poor, not through any failure of our society, but because they came here poor. Furthermore, no matter how many of these poor people are Spanish-speaking immigrants, these articles will be sure to focus on poor native-born Americans with names like Smith or Jones. Poverty affects everyone, right? We wouldn’t want to give the impression that it only affects Hispanics or recent immigrants.

This is all very sweet, but more than a little misleading. Under the best scenarios, poor immigrants swell the ranks of the poor until they can work themselves out of poverty. Yet because poor immigrants are generally less educated and less skilled, they often remain in poverty. Statistics show that while they may do much better than they would have in their native countries, poor immigrants tend to remain poor by American standards.36 Their children and grandchildren partially close the income gap between themselves and native-born Americans, but remain somewhat poorer than the children and grandchildren of natives. All this contributes to inequality here in America. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise. By importing poor people and setting them in competition with other poor people, we ensure this very result.

A third way mass immigration widens inequality is by increasing the percentage of poor Americans who aren’t citizens. It is a lot easier for politicians to ignore poor people’s interests when they don’t have to worry about attracting their votes. In many American cities, a quarter or more of the population may not be citizens, and a majority of the poor may not be.37 We should not be surprised that during recent decades, as the numbers of U.S.-resident noncitizens doubled and doubled again and doubled yet again,38 government policy has shifted away from helping the poor, or that discussions of “urban policy” have become rare and big cities have lost a lot of political clout.

These problems are compounded, of course, when large numbers of workers are here illegally. Illegal workers cannot challenge dishonest and abusive employers, much less fight effectively in the political realm for a fair share of government services. But even legal immigrant workers cannot band together effectively without the prerogatives and the mindsets of citizens, including the background belief (foreign to so many immigrants’ experience) that government should be working for them. That is why expanding “guest worker” programs from agriculture into landscaping, construction, or other areas is such a bad idea. It would create more sectors of the economy where we accept the permanent impoverishment of lower-level workers, as Americans now accept the permanent impoverishment of agricultural laborers.

To sum up: Over the past 40 years, America has generated tremendous increases in wealth. But that wealth has mostly been captured by wealthier Americans and economic inequality has increased greatly. If we continue to allow mass immigration into the United States, this inequality will likely worsen. This is particularly true since Democrats no longer show a strong willingness to fight for policies that redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Democratic timidity makes it even more important to ensure that labor markets do not work against poor and middle class Americans.

A Master / Servant Economy

We can see increasing economic inequality in the figures for wages and income over the past 40 years, but also in signs of a burgeoning “servant” economy in the United States.39 More people are hiring lawn care services to cut their grass and trim their hedges. We eat out a lot more than we used to. More people are hiring nannies to take care of their children. All these services rely heavily on immigrant labor.

A mainstream economist might find little to criticize in these trends and much to praise. Contracting out grass cutting relieves some people of a tedious chore and creates jobs for others who need them. Eating out at restaurants is a harmless enjoyment that again creates jobs. Hiring a nanny allows educated women professionals to make the best (read: “most lucrative”) use of their time. All this activity registers positively on the GDP tally sheet. It is “good for the economy” and therefore good, period.

But is it? I hardly see busboys and nannies as sinister figures, but I’m wary of these trends. In the 19th century, servants were a lot more common in America than they are today. During the 20th century, the rise of the middle class and the related high cost of labor mostly did away with them. Now servants are making a comeback. I think this is a bad thing.

Where there are servants, there will be masters. There will be some measure of deference on one side and some feeling of entitlement on the other. This contradicts the egalitarian spirit at the heart of progressivism.

Where there are servants, the masters will run the show politically. The servants will hardly have the time, inclination, or organization to engage in politics. They also may not have the required citizenship. This contradicts our democratic political system.

Where there are servants, the masters’ children are apt to get soft and lazy. The servants do the hard, physical work, as a matter of course. With Americans facing an obesity epidemic, this might not be the right time to cut back on chores like cutting grass and trimming trees that help keep us physically active.

But my main concern is not with our bodies but with our souls; or rather, with the souls of our communities. Americans who are doing fairly well — professionals, intellectuals, the kind of people who might be reading this policy brief — need to ask themselves what sort of society we want to live in. Do we want to live among neighbors, people with the same general status as ourselves — or deferential peons, who take care of all our “dirty work?” Do we want fellow citizens, with the interest and the time to get involved in community matters and local politics — or “guest workers” who shut up and do what they’re told? (And please: Let’s not kid ourselves that such programs will provide such wonderful safeguards that these “guests” will be able to stand up for their rights, successfully unionize, or even have the time and energy to live fully human lives. The goal of such programs is to provide workers — not neighbors, not citizens. Employers have these workers over a barrel. That’s the point.)

Mass immigration moves us in the latter direction, in part through the economic forces we’ve been discussing, in part by creating linguistic and cultural barriers between professionals and the manual workers who empty their wastebaskets and take care of their children. It is easier to accept the subservient status of people who look and talk differently from ourselves. Besides, we think, they’re doing a lot better than they would have in Guatemala, or the Philippines, or Haiti.

When we combine the attitudes and expectations of a servant economy with declining wages for manual workers and less-educated workers, we find ourselves falling into a less egalitarian society. Now meatpackers and garbage men, waitresses and busboys, bus drivers and janitors, roofers and construction workers, begin to stand out against doctors, engineers, and other professionals, as a separate class. They are no longer our equals in terms of wealth, security, education, influence, leisure time, or power. We are the ones with influential professional associations; their unions are weak or gone. We are the ones with stock portfolios. We are the ones with health insurance. We are the ones who can change our jobs or have our teeth fixed when necessary. A hierarchical America is growing before your eyes, if you will only open them and see it.

I don’t like this new, hierarchical America — even if I can find Thai food and sushi in places where a dinner out once meant steak and potatoes at the local diner. If progressivism in America means anything, it means fighting to turn this situation around and get a fairer deal for American workers. And let’s be honest. The answer cannot be for everyone in America to go back to school, get advanced degrees, and enter the professions.

We are constantly told that the answer to stagnating incomes is education and acquiring new, marketable skills. That is good advice for many individuals. But there will always be people who do poorly in school, or who get less education for one reason or another. And for the foreseeable future, our society will have plenty of hard, physical labor and repetitive grunt work that needs to be done. Are we saying that the people who wind up doing this work should be poor? Why? Perhaps they deserve to be punished for not being as smart as they should have been. Perhaps their poverty makes us, the successful professionals, feel that much more satisfied with our own lives.

Sound a little ugly? Then join me in saying the opposite. People who are willing to work hard and do the dirty work of this world should be well paid. They should have the same economic security, the same opportunities for leisure, the same basic middle class comforts as any doctor, lawyer, or businessman. If you say they shouldn’t, then you are just a snob. (If you say they should, but can’t imagine how to go about doing it, then you are probably a modern-day Democrat.)

I’ve found that it offends many people’s sense of decency to imagine having garbage men paid as much as lawyers or professors, so I won’t insist on that. Let the professionals make two or three times as much as manual laborers (although I don’t see why they should; the stimulation of their professions should be reward enough for them). Let the successful businessmen and businesswomen pile up as much wealth as they can, if they are in love with that particular pursuit. But then let the garbage man and the janitor, the secretary and the security guard, make a decent middle class living as well. Let my friend Steve have health insurance, so he can get treatment for his aching back after a hard day’s work.


I think this is the main political choice facing America today. Do we want to meet our fellow citizens as friends and equals as we go about our economic lives? Or should we magnify economic distinctions so that some of us — the smart, the lucky, the ruthless — can lord it over peons?

We like to think of the towns and cities we live in as “communities,” the United States itself as a union of citizens pledged to protect one another’s welfare. On our patriotic holidays, we remember the words “all men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In our churches, we hear how all people are precious in God’s sight. I think being a progressive means working to create an economy that upholds these noble ideals.

But it does little good to pursue piecemeal reforms if we are not willing to look economic realities squarely in the face. Mass immigration of unskilled workers is a powerful force pushing us toward greater inequality. Cutting back on immigration is one of the most obvious and important actions Americans can take to begin to rebuild an egalitarian society.

End Notes

1 Personal interview, Steve, September, 2007.

2 Table 1.1.5, “National Economic Accounts,” Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of Commerce. Accessed May 2008, at

3 Figures obtained from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

4 For a good overview of the economic effects of immigration on workers’ wages, see George Borjas, Heaven’s Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy(Princeton University Press, 1999). See also, the essays in Steven Shulman (ed.), The Impact of Immigration on African Americans (Transaction, 2004).

5 Annual immigration rates taken from table HS-8, “Immigration—Number and Rate: 1900 to 2001,” U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2003, p.15.

6 George Borjas, Heaven’s Door, p.11.

7 “Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics survey (National) SIC,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Data extracted December 2007; figures adjusted for inflation. “Today” refers to wages in 2003, the last year for which BLS figures are available.

8 A good account of the rise and decline of unionized meatpacking can be found in the essays in Shelton Stromquist and Marvin Bergman (eds.), Unionizing the Jungles: Labor and Community in the Twentieth-Century Meatpacking Industry(University of Iowa Press, 1997).

9 Roy Beck, The Case Against Immigration: The Moral, Economic, Social, and Environmental Reasons for Reducing U.S. immigration Back to Traditional Levels(Norton, 1996), chapter 6.

10 Carol Andreas, Meatpackers and Beef Barons: Company Town in a Global Economy (University Press of Colorado, 1994).

11 Peter Rachleff, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement (South End Press, 1992).

12 Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal(Harper Perennial, 2001), chapter 8. See also Andreas, Meatpackers and Beef Barons, chapter 5.

13 Steven Kay, “The Nature of Turnover: Packers Attempt to Reverse a Financial Drain,” Meat & Poultry 43 (1997): 30-34; A.V. Krebs, Heading Toward the Last Roundup: The Big Three’s Prime Cut (Washington, DC: Corporate Agribusiness Project, 1990), p. 51.

14 Jerry Kammer, “The 2006 Swift Raids: Assessing the Impact of Immigration Enforcement Actions at Six Facilities” (Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies, 2009), note 19.

15 Kammer, “The 2006 Swift Raids.” See also “Immigration Raids May Affect Meat Prices,” The Washington Post, December 12, 2006; “An immigration raid aids blacks for a time,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 17, 2007.

16 Personal interview, Tom, October, 2007.

17 Personal interview, Jeff, October, 2007.

18 Borjas, Heaven’s Door, p.13.

19 Borjas, Heaven’s Door, p. 90.

20 George Borjas, “The Economic Benefits from Immigration,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 9 (1995): 7.

21 Colorado Department of Labor and Employees, cited in “Immigration Wage Debate Rages: Pay Stagnates in Sectors Full of Foreign-Born Workers,” Rocky Mountain News, August 26, 2006.

22 International Labor Organization, “Statistics: By Country,” “Mexico,” Table 5A “Wages, by Economic Activity.” Accessed October 2009 at

23 Steven Camarota, “Immigrants in the United States – 2002: a Snapshot of America’s Foreign-Born Population” (Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies, 2002).

24 Borjas, Heaven’s Door, p. 91.

25 Id.

26 Steven Camarota, “Immigration’s Impact on American Workers.” Testimony before House Judiciary Committee, May 9, 2007 (Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies); George Borjas, “Increasing the Supply of Labor Through Immigration: Measuring the Impact on Native-born Workers” (Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies, 2004).

27 George Borjas, “The Labor Market Impact of High-Skill Immigration” (Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2005). Working paper 11217.

28 Camarota, “Immigrants in the United States – 2002,” figure 2.

29 George Borjas, “Increasing the Supply of Labor Through Immigration: Measuring the Impact on Native-born Workers,” (Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies, 2004).

30 George Borjas, Jeffrey Grogger, and Gordon Hanson, “Immigration and African-American Employment Opportunities: The Response of Wages, Employment, and Incarceration to Labor Supply Shocks,” Working Paper, September 2006.

31 Id.

32 Vernon Briggs, “Illegal Immigration: The Impact on Wages and Employment of Black Workers ” (Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies). Testimony before U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, April 4, 2008.

33 Id.

34 Robert Malloy, “Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are: Black Americans on Immigration” (Washington, DC, Center for Immigration Studies, 1996); Daryl Scott, “Immigrant Indigestion: A. Philip Randolph, Radical and Restrictionist” (Washington, DC, Center for Immigration Studies, 1999).

35 Personal interview, Paul, October, 2007.

36 Borjas, Heaven’s Door, chapter 7.

37 Camarota, “Immigrants in the United States—2002,” tables 18 and 19.

38 Camarota, “Immigrants in the United States—2002,” figure 1.

39 Barbara Ehrenreich, “Maid to Order: The Politics of Other Women’s Work,”Harper’s Magazine, April 1, 2000; “The New West’s servant economy,” High Country News, April 17, 1995.

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