Immigrants as a Threat to U.S. Workers

Much of the Right's rhetoric about the economic situation in the United States. uses anti-immigration sentiment to justify support for its conservative economic views. These arguments are confusing on the surface, because they can appear contradictory. Sometimes the Right presents arguments that blame immigrants directly for economic ills. Others appear protective of workers' rights, blaming corporations for exploiting immigrants and driving down wages for native-born Americans. Still others, like the libertarian Cato Institute, seem to support immigration but simultaneously support policies that are anti-immigrant, such as Welfare Reform or weakening workers' protections. These positions indicate the complexity of the Right as a whole and the presence of a number of sectors that have developed different "takes" on the effect of immigrants on the U.S. economy.

The Role of Business and Immigrants

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Some groups on the Right put forth surprisingly progressive arguments about the role of big business and immigration policy. They say:

  • Big business benefits from cheap, immigrant labor which it exploits with low wages and poor working conditions.
  • Lax immigration policies in general, and unenforced employer sanctions in particular, allow businesses like the garment and food service industries to recruit and hire undocumented workers.
  • The low wages these businesses pay to immigrant labor contribute to driving down the wages for Americans.
They claim:
  • Powerful business interests work with the immigrant rights movement to lobby for shared goals: amnesty for "illegal aliens," improved access to jobs for all immigrants, and increased quotas for high-tech and essential worker visas.
The solution to these big business-generated problems is:
  • Immediate, stricter restrictions on immigration, including rigorous enforcement of employer sanctions, to limit the power of big business and protect U.S. jobs for U.S. citizens.
Example: David Simcox. (2001). "Needed: Abolitionists: Sweatshops in the Los Angeles Garment Industry Should be Target of Reform Advocates." The Social Contract, vol. XI, no. 4, Summer, pp. 288-291; Dick Hafer. (1994). "Truth." Border Watch, April, Monterey, VA: American Immigration Control Foundation.


When an organization on the Right takes a stand against big business, it does not necessarily mean that it is pro-immigrant, or even pro-labor. There is no question that big business often exploits immigrant labor. But critics on the Right that challenge big business practices are less interested in labeling corporate America as greedy than they are in scapegoating immigrants. When they say they seek to protect jobs for the "American worker," which they contend have been lost to cheap immigrant labor, they are appealing to native-born workers who have suffered from economic changes, downsizing and a lowered standard of living. Such an argument scapegoats immigrants and plays on the resentments of those U.S.-born workers who have not benefited from the economic boom the 1990s. Their answer, to regulate immigration severely, will not limit the power of corporations and will certainly diminish immigrants' human rights.

When the Right casually calls for stricter employer sanctions, it ignores the unintended consequences of having employer sanctions on the books since 1986. Employer sanctions were designed to limit undocumented immigration by requiring employers to enforce federal immigration laws. But their effect was to increase discrimination against foreign-looking applicants, rather than to deter undocumented workers. Further, employer sanctions are often fraught with fraud, such as employers providing false documentation or using the threat of reporting as a way to prevent workplace organizing.1

Arguments that accuse the immigrant rights movement of collaborating with corporate interests are inaccurate and misrepresent both groups. Business interests depend on a ready pool of workers. They are more likely to be interested in bottom line business practices and in lobbying for legislation that protects their interests than in defending immigrants' rights. And multinational corporations wish to protect their interests through access to both immigrant labor in the United States and cheap labor abroad. Most immigrant rights groups advocate for economic justice, equal opportunity and protection under the law for immigrant workers, not for a system that merely allows immigrants to hold jobs.

The economic picture is much more complicated than these anti-immigrant, anti-big business arguments suggest. Such appeals deflect thoughtful scrutiny away from examining factors like globalization on the U.S. economy. We can no longer protect businesses and jobs in this country from global influence. Many corporations in this country are no longer just U.S. companies; they have a transnational influence. Because many U.S. transnational corporations have opened markets for themselves in many parts of the world, and because world trade policy favors globalized economies, the U.S. economy is linked to more countries than ever.

Globalization has actually contributed to the flow of immigrants around the world by creating or sustaining much of the poverty in developing countries. Many immigrants come to the United States because they seek greater economic opportunities than currently exist in their home countries, and they are willing to take the risks even of being undocumented if they can better their own economic situations.

Trade policies created by the WTO, along with structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and the IMF, have made it more difficult for developing nations to raise their standards of living.2 This has resulted in major patterns of economic migration that affect the United States and many other countries. Restricting immigration or blaming immigrants does nothing to alter this system and actually detracts from addressing its shortcomings in a comprehensive way.

Both immigration and economic policies are set by the government but are highly influenced by business interest groups in the agricultural, service and manufacturing sectors. Immigrants do not create these policies, but they are regularly scapegoated for any shortcomings or trouble spots that result. Rather than accept a simplistic and incorrect explanation, we need to develop an understanding of the larger, more global, economic system, including the interests and conditions of sending countries, and insist on policies that serve the interests of everyone, both native-born and immigrant.

Immigrants and Competition for Jobs

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

One of the most common anti-immigrant arguments is that immigrants, both "legal" and "illegal," are costing "Americans" thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in lost wages every year.

They say:

  • Immigrants take jobs that rightfully belong to U.S.-born workers, especially unskilled Americans who are left with no work options.
  • Unskilled immigrants enter the United States poor and stay that way, worsening the poverty problem and placing burdens on our social services.
  • The latest economic downturn has laid off many U.S.-born workers who cannot get even lower-paying jobs because immigrants have taken them.
Examples: Roy Beck. (1996). The Case Against Immigration. "Jobs Americans Will Do." ch. 6, p. 101-135. New York: W.W. Norton; Donald Huddle. "Give Me Your Huddled Masses" in Federation for American Immigration Reform. (1992). Immigration 2000: The Century of the new American Sweatshop. pp.53-57. Washington, DC: by the author; Philip Martin, "Network Recruitment and Labor Displacement," pp.45-51 in Immigration 2000, op. cit.; John L. Martin. (1996). "What is the Relation Between Income Inequality and Immigration?" Washington, DC: Federation for American Immigration Reform.


The Right consistently misrepresents the economic contribution of immigrant labor to the U.S. economy. According to many studies, rather than acting as a drain on the U.S. economy, immigrants are actually contributing many assets to the economic system.3 They bring human capital into the country. They are more likely than U.S.-born workers to be mobile geographically and occupationally, responding to regional tight labor markets. They are more willing to fill less desirable jobs.

Although immigrants on the whole earn less than their U.S.-born counterparts when they first arrive, they close the gap over a period of years. They start small businesses more often than the native population, and this generates new jobs. According to these studies, including a 1997 National Academy of Science's publication, The New Americans, their overall effect on the labor market is positive.

Blaming immigrants for economic downturns or for lowered wages is inaccurate and misdirected. Corporations that relocate to sites with cheaper labor are the cause of the loss of unionized jobs, not the presence of immigrants in a particular location. And although immigrants often work in concentrated numbers in certain industries such as meatpacking or building maintenance, their presence has had only a small impact on native wages, and then only locally, not on a national level.4 Other economic forces such as inflation, unemployment rates and job creation rates have more influence on wages and buying power of native workers than immigrants do.

An alternative response to these cost/benefit arguments is a human rights perspective. Scapegoating immigrants sends undocumented workers further underground and makes them more vulnerable to exploitation. When immigrant workers are attacked, all workers suffer. Because everyone deserves a living wage and decent working conditions, we need to support policies that make such situations possible for all workers, immigrants and U.S.-born workers alike.

Guest Worker Programs

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Most anti-immigrant groups are against guest worker programs, both for high-tech workers and for agricultural and low-skilled workers. They say these programs lock out U.S.-born workers and only benefit employers by lowering wages. According to this line of reasoning, the only logistical solution to the problems of immigrant labor exploitation and the decrease of job opportunities for native-born workers is a severe curb on the level of legal immigration and successful prevention of "illegal" immigration.

Examples: FAIR (press release). (2000). "GAO Finds No Agricultural Labor Shortage: What About Other Industries?" Mark Krikorian, Testimony before Congress. (2001). "An Examination of the Premises Underlying a Guestworker Program, June 19.


Those on the Right who oppose guest worker programs because they lower wages and exploit immigrant labor are using these arguments to appeal to native workers and their supporters. While many who seek to protect immigrant workers' rights also oppose guest worker programs, the Right uses these arguments to attempt to build opposition to any further immigration. The same is true for seemingly pro-union statements that attack immigrants as unionbusters. The results of such campaigns are intended to increase anti-immigrant sentiment among nonimmigrant union members and other workers in the sectors affected by guest worker programs. Guest worker programs should be challenged for other reasons, including the lack of potential citizenship status and the restrictions on job choice and wage negotiations. (For a discussion of the role of guest worker proposals in the Bush administration, see Jean Hardisty's article, "Corporate Desires Vs. Anti-Immigrant Fervor: The Bush Administration's Dilemma."

Immigrants and African Americans

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Some anti-immigrant organizations present themselves as advocates for African American rights. They say:

  • African Americans disproportionately suffer the negative consequences of immigration in employment, housing, education, and social services.
  • Employers prefer to hire immigrants because immigrants are willing to take lower salaries and because employers are racist against African Americans.
  • Immigrants tend to work within certain occupational niches and exclude African Americans from these jobs.
  • Immigration is to blame for the continued subjugation of African Americans.
Examples: Center for Immigration Studies. (1996). "‘Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are': Black Americans on Immigration." June.; Frank Morris. (1996/1997) "Urban Labor Markets: Immigrants vs. African Americans." Immigration Review, Fall/Winter, pp. 18-19 and at


This argument is an example of anti-immigrant organizations opportunistically using a typically progressive concern to advance an anti-immigration position. The claim that African Americans have suffered as a result of immigration is designed to appeal to African-American resentment over economic injustice and to divert attention from the institutional racism that privileges U.S.-born Whites. These arguments attempt to drive a "wedge" between two marginalized groups that are systematically excluded from economic opportunity.

However, studies do not provide empirical evidence that immigration has a substantial negative effect on native African American wages.5 As a National Research Council study found, "none of the available evidence suggests that [African Americans] have been particularly hard-hit on a national level [as result of immigration] . . . . [For] the majority of blacks . . . their economic fortunes are tied largely to other factors."6 Actually, the group most affected economically by recent immigrants is older generations of immigrants, who are their closest competitors for jobs.7 Also, scapegoating immigrants detracts attention from the problem that all labor experiences: business interests seek to expand profits in part by keeping wages down for all workers.

In fact, immigrants and African Americans could better function as allies than enemies. Both immigrants and U.S.-born people of color face similar patterns of economic opportunity because of education, housing and employment factors. Both groups also experience similar patterns of discrimination. Understanding these connections, Black Workers for Justice and a number of unions responded to increases in Latino immigration to North Carolina by initiating an African American/Latino Alliance in 2000. The group has done targeted outreach to areas where Latinos and African Americans work closely together. It has launched a campaign calling for legalization of undocumented immigrants and collective bargaining rights for public workers, both immigrant and nonimmigrant.

Immigrants and Affirmative Action

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Most right-wing groups oppose affirmative action. However a few anti-immigrant groups have opportunistically taken up this issue as an example of how immigrants are unfairly benefiting at the expense of African Americans. They say:

  • Affirmative action programs were meant to redress the historical injustice of slavery experienced by African Americans.
  • It should only apply to African Americans and never to those born outside the United States.
  • Employers are filling their affirmative action "quotas" without regard to the citizenship status of applicants.
  • Immigrants "are getting off the plane and moving right to the head of the line."
Examples: James S. Robb. (1998). Affirmative Action for Immigrants: The Entitlement Nobody Wanted. Monterey, VA: American Immigration Control Foundation; Joseph L. Daleiden. (1998). "Immigration's Impact on African-American Job Opportunities," Headway Magazine, February,


This line of reasoning is another opportunistic use of a progressive argument to oppose immigration. It is also an attempt to pit African Americans against immigrants. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that affirmative action is a remedy for current, not past, discrimination and is not a "quota" system. Affirmative action is designed to give equal opportunities to those who are commonly discriminated against in hiring, promotion, public contracting, and public school enrollment. It applies to people of color and women. White women and people of color, both native-born and immigrant, are all discriminated against in employment, getting lower-paying jobs and suffering from higher unemployment rates than White men.

The Glass Ceiling Commission revealed in a 1995 report that 97 percent of top managers in Fortune 1000 industrial and Fortune 500 service companies are White and 95 percent are men.8 African American men earn 23% less than White men, and Latino men earn 37% less. White women earn 72 cents for every dollar earned by White men, while African American women earn 64 cents, and Latinas 52 cents.9 White high school graduates earn 26 percent more than Asian Pacific Americans with similar degrees.10

Discrimination decreases the employment and salary opportunities of not only African Americans, but also Latinos and Asian-Americans, many of whom are immigrants. It is appropriate that affirmative action be applied to all people of color. Affirmative action is designed to address this problem and open doors for people who otherwise would be shut out of job opportunities.

End Notes

1. U.S. General Accounting Office, Immigration Reform: Employer Sanctions and the Question of Discrimination, (Washington, D.C.: by the author, 1990).

2. U.S. Network for Global Economic Justice, "False Profits: Who Wins, Who Loses When the IMF, World Bank and WTO Come to Town," October 15, 1998. (October 26, 2001).

3. See James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston, eds., The New Americans: Economic, Demographic and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1997).

4. See Smith and Edmonston, op.cit., 221-225; and F.D. Bean, B.L. Lowell, and L.J. Taylor, "Undocumented Mexican Immigrants and the Earnings of Other Workers in the United States," Demography, vol. 25 no. I:35-52.

5. R.J. Lalonde and R.H. Topel, "Assimilation of immigrants in the U.S. Labor Market," in George Borjas and R. Freeman, eds., Immigration and the Work Force, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 67-92.

6. Smith and Edmonston, op.cit., 223.

7. Smith and Edmonston, op.cit., 223.

8. Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, "A Solid Investment: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital," (Washington, DC: by the author, 1995) 6.

9. National Committee on Pay Equity, "Little Progress on Closing Wage Gap in 2000:Women Make 73 Percent of Men's Earnings," Pay Equity Info: Fact Sheets. (January 10, 2002).

10. Barbara Vobejda, "Asian/Pacific Islanders Trail Whites in Earnings - Comparable Education Fails to Close the Gap," The Washington Post, September 18, 1992, A3.

This article first appeared in Defending Immigrant Rights: An Activist Resource Kit, published by Political Research Associates, © 2002.

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