Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Immigration and the Wages of Native Workers: Spatial versus Occupational Approaches

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Immigration and the Wages of Native Workers: Spatial versus Occupational Approaches

Article excerpt

Using data from the Current Population Survey, we study the impact of the increasing proportion of immigrants on the wages of native workers. Two different approaches are contrasted. The most common method has been the spatial approach that uses some geographic unit of analysis to investigate the multivariate association between the proportion of immigrants and the wages of native workers. Previous studies using the spatial approach have generally found little evidence of a significant negative effect. We propose, however, a contrasting method that represents an occupational approach in which occupations are the unit of analysis to investigate the impact of the proportion immigrant. This occupational approach avoids the bias that is inherent in the spatial approach due to the endogenous nature of immigrants' decisions about where to reside and the economic opportunities of local areas. In contrast to the spatial approach, our results using the same data but employing the occupational approach yield consistently negative net effects of the proportion immigrant on the wages of native workers during the period from 1994 to 2006.

Immigration is one of the major policy issues of our time. Every American presidential administration since Reagan has advocated, proposed, or promoted the passage of major legislation on immigration. It is hotly debated today by politicians, journalists, media commentators as well as academics. Given that about 12 percent of the U.S. population is foreign bom and that immigration trends appear to be continuing without much change (Larsen 2004), it is likely to remain a major policy issue in the foreseeable future.

The approach adopted by sociologists who specialize in the study of immigration is, frankly speaking, politically "pro-immigrant." Although this stance is not explicitly stated, it is evident in much of their work. For example, persons who question the desirability of high levels of immigration are often dismissed by sociologists as "xenophobic" and "alarmist" (Fennelly 2008:152; Massey 2008:349-350). Non-urban Americans are sometimes portrayed as being "parochial" (Hirschman 2005:601): "Small-town America has been indifferent, insensitive, and sometimes even hostile to newcomers" (Hirschman and Massey 2008:18). Other characterizations include descriptions of being "lower-income, less-educated" and the "most susceptible to the perception of immigrants as a competitive threat" (Fennelly 2008:153).

This "perception" is said to be based on ignorance because "a number of studies have shown that immigrants generally do not take jobs away from native-born American workers" (Fennelly 2008:173). Farley (1996:200) stated that "there is consensus that the effects of immigration on the employment and wages of natives are modest." More recently, Hirschman (2005:606) concluded that "there are wide-spread popular beliefs, including many influential voices within public policy circles, that immigration is harmful to the economic welfare of the country and especially to native-born Americans. . . . However, neither economic theory nor empirical evidence supports such negative assessments. . . . The overwhelming body of empirical research finds little evidence of negative effects." Hirschman (2005:606) furthermore claims that this conclusion applies "across all types of native workers, white and black, skilled and unskilled, male and female." The "perception" among native workers that immigrants reduce their labor market prospects is explained to have arisen because "rural nostalgia and xenophobia are fomented by anti-immigrant groups, who couch their opposition to immigration in the cloak of social and environmental protection" (Fennelly 2008:153).

The conventional wisdom among sociologists seems consistent with the saying that "immigrants do the jobs that Americans will not do" (Bush 2004). For example, Hirschman and Massey argue that immigrants are "coming to fill jobs that are no longer attractive to native-born workers and that would not even exist were it not for immigrants' taking them" and "immigrants are willing to provide low-cost services that might not otherwise be available" (Hirschman and Massey 2008:17). …

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