Tensions in Rhetoric and Reality at the Intersection of Work and Immigration

2 UC Irvine Law Review, Volume 1 (Symposium on Persistent Puzzles in Immigration Law), 2012

Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2045621

22 Pages Posted: 24 Apr 2012

See all articles by Jennifer Gordon

Jennifer Gordon

Fordham University School of Law

Date Written: April 17, 2012


Opposition to immigration in the United States is often phrased as a fear that newcomers will compete with citizens for jobs, drive down wages, and displace American workers. In response, immigrants’ rights advocates advance several arguments. To counteract the claim that ongoing immigration is harmful to US workers, we cite the large majority of economists whose studies have found immigrant workers have either no impact or a net positive impact on native wages and the employment of natives at a national level. In shorthand, immigrants come to the United States to fill “jobs Americans won’t do.” To encourage support for the rights of immigrants in the workplace, we contend that reinforcing immigrant workers' rights should be of concern for all workers, because everyone in the job market is harmed when a set of workers is unable to demand compliance with basic laws, much less to organize for better treatment than these minimum standards provide. This essay explores the contradictions between these arguments, in the process seeking out a more complex truth behind the simplified assertions on which each rests. The most obvious conflict lies right on the surface, although I have not seen it explicitly discussed: if immigrants do not have a negative impact on natives' wages and employment rates, and if they are indeed taking jobs “Americans won’t do,” then they are not competing with natives for jobs. But if immigrants don’t compete with natives, why (beyond human kindness) should native workers care about the enforcement of immigrant workers' rights?

While I argue that this apparent conflict can be largely resolved through a closer examination of economists' findings, disaggregated on several levels, I go on to raise other concerns that I do not have such an easy time addressing. In search of a road out of these dilemmas, the essay concludes with thoughts about how we might advocate for immigrant workers rights and immigration reform in ways that are both more consistent with reality on the ground and more effective in fostering solidarity between immigrants and native workers.

Keywords: immigration, competition, labor

JEL Classification: F22, J39, J61

Suggested Citation

Gordon, Jennifer, Tensions in Rhetoric and Reality at the Intersection of Work and Immigration (April 17, 2012). 2 UC Irvine Law Review, Volume 1 (Symposium on Persistent Puzzles in Immigration Law), 2012, Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2045621, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2045621

Jennifer Gordon (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

140 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
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212-636-7444 (Phone)
212-636-6899 (Fax)

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