No time like the present

By Michelle Chen May 20, 2009

What’s the right political moment to address immigration reform? Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano expressed reluctance to tackle immigration reform in the midst of an economic downturn—citing typical, and typically dubious, arguments about immigrants and jobs. She told reporters on Tuesday:

“When unemployment is up, anything that looks like you’re taking jobs away from …people who are lawfully here—citizens of the United States—is going to meet a lot of resistance.”

Napolitano didn’t mention that much of this disembodied "resistance"–and the cynicism it evokes in Washington–stems from fundamental misunderstanding about the link between immigration and employment trends. A report released today by the Immigration Policy Center indicates that whether unemployment is high or low, the data shows virtually no direct connection between the jobs immigrants “take” and those lost by others.(H/T Washington Independent and Immigation Prof)

Locales with high unemployment rates do not necessarily have large numbers of recent immigrants, and locales with many recent immigrants do not necessarily have high unemployment rates. In other words… the numbers of recent immigrants in an area provide no indication of what the unemployment rate might be.

The study also puts the issue in perspective by noting that immigrants who arrived in the last decade make up only about 5.5 percent of the workforce. A related analysis of unemployment across racial and ethnic groups points to other factors contributing to joblessness, which are merely symptomized by immigration.

The absence of any significant statistical correlation between recent immigration and unemployment rates among different native?born racial/ethnic groups points to deeper, structural causes for unemployment among the native?born, such as levels of educational attainment and work skills.

Research on the economic impacts of illegal immigration is more complicated. There’s no doubt that undocumented workers play a vital role in the economy, especially in low-skill job sectors. Yet the expansion of a two-tiered workforce allows incentives to undermine conditions for all workers. At the same time, with the economy waning, there’s evidence of a downward slide in immigration from Mexico, which could take the edge off the issue. Napolitano didn’t suggest such a trend would ease tensions over immigration policy reform. Curiously, though, she argued that despite the reported decline, the government should “keep on ahead” with its controversial agenda to ramp up border security. A study from the William C. Velasquez Institute argues that a troubled economy makes the issue of legalizing undocumented immigrants more, not less urgent. And politically speaking, the "resistance" is counterbalanced by a large majority of Latino voters expecting real change on immigration during Obama’s first year in office. Unless the administration is seeking an out from a real discussion on fixing broken immigration policies, why wouldn’t an economic downturn be the best time of all to address the crisis? Image: The Breakthrough Institute