Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Low-skilled native workers pursue very different jobs than their immigrant counterparts.
Economists tend to agree that immigration is good for the economy: immigrants create jobs and make U.S-born workers more prosperous. Opponents of this idea often cite the work of Harvard labor economist George Borjas to argue that, at the very least, low-skilled immigrants steal jobs that low-skilled Americans would normally do. Here’s The Atlantic’s David Frum fleshing out this critique:
If you assume that all low-education workers are potential substitutes for each other—the 23-year-old recent arrival from Guatemala with the 53-year-old who proceeded from high school to the Army—then your model will show a less dramatic effect of immigration on wages. If, however, you assume that the 23-year-old Guatemalan is competing with 20- and 30-something native-born workers who lack diplomas, then your model will show a very big effect.
The core of this argument relies on the assumption that similarly educated native-born and immigrant workers of the same age don’t take on complementary roles in the job market as economists suggest—but rather eye the same jobs. But a new analysis of Census data from the Urban Institute finds evidence to the contrary.
Urban’s Maria E. Enchautegui studied a cohort of 16 million American workers without high school diplomas. She found that within this group, immigrants and native-born workers do very different jobs. In fact, she writes that native and immigrants workers at this level of education are much more dissimilar when it comes to their role in the job market than are workers at other levels of educational attainment. Here’s how she summarizes these results and their implication in a blog post:
These findings suggest that immigrants and native workers with low levels of education may be competing for different jobs and even could be complementing each other. Immigration status can constrain a worker’s job choices, but many immigrants are working different jobs from natives because they have limited English language or technical skills, or because they have insufficient exposure to the US workplace. If undocumented immigrants become authorized to work in the United States, that still may not be enough to increase competition with natives for low-skilled jobs.
Enchautegui offers two charts showing the different type of occupations immigrants without high school degrees tend to do (top), compared to natives (bottom):
While there is some overlap, the most common occupations are different for native and immigrant workers—and that difference might widen in the future. Enchautegui mentions that while the number of U.S. natives without a high school degree is decreasing, the share of such immigrant workers with this level of education has been climbing. By 2022, 4 million more jobs that don’t require high school degrees will be added to the U.S. job market. We’ll need low-skilled immigrants to do those jobs, as native-born workers graduate to higher-skill level positions.