The current debate over immigration is reviving decades-old arguments about its economic effects, and whether more deportations or less legal immigration will produce more jobs or better wages in the United States.
Recent history provides some lessons, according to researchers who have studied large-scale deportations that occurred from the 1950s to the early 1960s. The infamously named “Operation Wetback” during the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower resulted in the repatriation of a third of the Mexicans who worked legally in the fields in a U.S. agricultural guest worker program.
The “Bracero program” started in 1942 when Mexico and the United States made a series of agreements that allowed millions of men to come north for short-term farm work during labor shortages due to WWII. But a program that promised economic benefits to both nations and their citizens also resulted in a large migration of Mexican workers who did not qualify for the program and crossed the border without documents.
Fears that foreign, temporary, or undocumented workers were “stealing” jobs from Americans helped kill the Bracero program. President Donald Trump, both during his 2016 campaign and in recent comments, depicted immigrants as an economic and security threat and a burden on American taxpayers.
The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have supported legislation to cut by half the number of legal immigrants. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, has accused big industries of using their power to keep U.S. borders open to inexpensive foreign labor to avoid increasing wages and benefits for U.S. workers.
"We have to be more careful about who we accept in this country, so that instead of hurting American workers, we help them," said a spokeswoman for Cotton.
Economist Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Studies contends that if tightening immigration leads to better wages and more jobs for Americans, evidence would have shown up when the braceros were expelled – removing 1.3 million foreign workers, according to government estimates.
Clemens and two other scientists from Darmouth College and the Center for Global Development went to the archives of the Eisenhower presidential library. There they collected the data, not existing anywhere else, of the number of braceros deported from each state to better compare the wages of Americans before and after the deportations.
"We did not find any effect on salaries," Clemens said in an interview. "There were states where a third of the agricultural workers were braceros and after all these workers had been expelled, saw no difference in the wages of the Americans."
He said he was amazed that "nobody asked, nobody investigated" the economic effect, not only with the expulsion of braceros but also with the 1882 law that blocked Chinese migration and the 1924 law that that limited the entry of immigrants from the southern nations of Europe.
In each of those cases, politicians promised the policy would result in better wages for Americans, Clemens said. "In none of these cases was this real, and nobody asked the question either."
Clemens believes Trump administration promises that curtailing immigration will improve conditions for American workers are unfounded. “There are numerous studies that already show that immigrants do not negatively affect the economy, on the contrary, the areas with the most immigrants are the most prosperous," he said.
The popular notion that the braceros were having a negative economic effect was supported by a report in 1959 by a U.S. government commission headed by Rufus B. von KleinSmid, who was then president of the University of Southern California.
"That Eisenhower chose von KleinSmid to study the effect of braceros is a bit strange, given that this man was a prominent supporter of the inferiority of Mexicans as a race, promoter of" eugenics "and a sterilization program that later was applied to Mexican women in Los Angeles County,” Clemens said.
"That was the man who headed the commission that decided the braceros were harmful to the economy," Clemens said. "These kinds of ideas were considered respectable then."
How about unauthorized immigration?
Many researchers have studied the effects of undocumented immigrants on the wages and job prospects of native workers, with mixed results. George Borjas is a Harvard professor known for research that takes a skeptical view of immigration. He agrees that immigrants are good for the economy, but believes the effects undocumented immigrants have on the economy depend on many variables: the specific industry they work in, the historical context, the laws in place and the country's economic conditions at the time.
Borjas has concluded that the people most affected by immigrants who are low skilled are other low skilled American workers "many of them blacks and Hispanics," who suffer wage dips when there are too many of them in the job market.
Most other researchers, however, look at the same data and draw different conclusions.
Audrey Singer, a demographer and expert in international migration at the Brookings Institution, points out that "the United States has become a much more educated society than ever before."
"The number of citizens without a high school diploma continues to decrease, but there's still a persistent demand for labor in fields such as construction or landscaping, jobs that cannot be exported or outsourced to another country, and must be continually filled."
In other words, the U.S. economy has for decades demonstrated an insatiable appetite for immigrant labor, especially at the lowest skill levels, and yet has not provided adequate avenues of legal immigration for these workers.
The result of this asymmetry between demand for labor and the legal means of satisfying that demand has been the disproportionate growth in unauthorized immigration.
In research published in June 2018 by the Bipartisan Policy Center, Ryan D. Edwards and Mao-Mei Liu of the University of California, Berkeley, questioned the assumption that immigrants take jobs from native workers. In fact, they found that immigrant labor increases native employment rates.
"The idea that there's a fixed number of jobs is inconsistent with the supply and demand theory," Edwards said. "The fine print is that when there´s an influx of foreign workers, jobs and other workers adapt in various ways which often produce more jobs. Native and immigrant workers are often quite different."