May 09, 2014 - 2:15pm

Immigration Reform Will Help American Workers

Senior Editor, Digital Content


Hand holding an American flag.
Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg.

The headline of a Wall Street Journal op-ed put it starkly: America is saying “No thanks” to 87,500 high-skilled workers who can add to our economy. In their piece, Martin Lawler and Margaret Stock delve into the limited number of H-1B visas available:

On April 1 the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was deluged with 172,500 applications for H-1B visas that became available that day. But there were twice as many applications as spaces available because Congress allows only 85,000 of the three-year visas to be issued annually.

By not lifting the H-1B visa cap and fixing our broken immigration system we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. Despite immigration reform opponents' claims, researchers have found that immigrant workers are good for native workers because they create jobs and push up wages.

The latest study comes from economists Giovanni Peri, Kevin Shih, and Chad Sparber. They look at the effects of immigrant workers with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills on the wages and employment of native workers. As Vox’s Danielle Kurtzleben explains, more foreign workers benefit native workers:

The researchers found that for every 1-percentage-point in foreign STEM workers' employment, wages for native college graduates' wages grew by a statistically significant 7 to 8 percent, and wages for native non-grads grew by 3 to 4 percent. So if H-1B workers grew from 4 percent of the workforce to 5 percent in a given year, then a college graduate making $1,000 a week initially would have seen a bump up to nearly $1,080 per week.

By not lifting the cap on H-1B visas, we're keeping American workers from getting a raise.

Add this study to a growing body of research showing that immigration creates jobs and pushes up wages for native workers. As the Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis writes, this is because immigrant workers of all skill levels don’t replace native workers, they complement them:

Immigrants complement existing capital, technology, and other experts. That applies both to high-skilled foreigners, who allow other researchers and academics to further specialize in their fields, as well as low-skilled immigrants, who free up natives to shift into more complex and communication-intensive professions.

This complementarity leads to higher productivity, economic growth, and higher wages.

By not passing immigration reform that modernizes our legal visa system, strengthens border security, improves E-Verify and employment verification, and provides a means for undocumented workers to earn a lawful status, we’re only hurting ourselves.

UPDATE: Jason Russel at e21 wrote about the paper:

The paper found no effect of foreign STEM workers on employment prospects for Americans. However, past research by Peri found that increasing legal immigration, regardless of education or occupation, would improve job prospects for American workers more than increasing deportation or border control.

As I state above this is due to immigrant workers complementing, not replacing, native workers.

Follow Sean Hackbarth on Twitter at @seanhackbarth and the U.S. Chamber at @uschamber.

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About the Author

About the Author

Sean Hackbarth
Senior Editor, Digital Content

Sean writes about public policies affecting businesses including energy, health care, and regulations. When not battling those making it harder for free enterprise to succeed, he raves about all things Wisconsin (his home state) and religiously follows the Green Bay Packers.