Republicans at first angrily blasted President Obama’s executive order granting temporary legal status to nearly five million undocumented immigrants, charging that he far exceeded his executive powers under the Constitution and ignored the will of the voters in the November election.
“He’s not an emperor, but he’s sure acting like one,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) declared last week.
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Now, the GOP has shifted the focus of their ire from largely obscure issues of separation of powers and prosecutorial discretion to more potent pocketbook issues that are certain to stir up its political base.
WHY THIS MATTERS
President Obama’s executive order shielding up to five million illegal immigrants from deportation may be the new wildcard in determining whether the economic recovery will remain on track. Reagan legalized 1.7 million illegal immigrants back in the 80’s, and at least one study from Harvard indicates a drop in wages of 7.4 percent. The country has never tested legalizing a number as large as 5 million.
Late last week, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) repeatedly warned that the millions of illegal immigrants freed from the threat of deportation would soon begin competing with middle-class Americans for better-paying jobs – a development that could further suppress middle-class wages.
“It’s time for us to stand up for the American worker for a change,” said Sessions, an ardent foe of immigration reform who is in line to become Budget Committee chair when the GOP takes control of the Senate in January. “One thing you didn’t hear last night in the President’s remarks was any concern about recent immigrants’ salaries; American workers’ difficulties finding a job, or the steady decline in wages that have occurred in this country.”
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“He ignored the interests of the American people, the American workers, and recent immigrants who have been here and are looking for jobs in a time of unemployment,” Sessions said in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation on Friday.
Sessions and other Republican critics complain that Obama’s executive order gives illegal immigrants (and those who overstayed their visas) work permits, Social Security numbers, and photo IDs. They say Obama’s executive order also expands a foreign workers program for corporate IT companies that may have the effect of keeping wages low because of the surge in the labor supply.
“Number one, for the four to five million people here illegally, he’s promising to print up and give work authorization,” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) said during an appearance on Fox News Sunday yesterday. “Essentially, he’s gotten into the job of counterfeiting immigration papers but there is no legal authority to do what he’s doing.”
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While the evidence is mixed on the economic impact of Obama’s new order on the workforce, the GOP warnings are likely to resonate with many at a time when the economic recovery remains uneven and middle-income Americans continue to be saddled with stagnant wages.
Wage growth has been a mixed bag for the most part, according to a Washington Post analysis, with substantial disparities between men and women, blacks and whites, young and old and high and low-skilled professionals.
The biggest winners in terms of higher pay include older workers, women and those with finance and technology jobs, while the biggest losers include men, younger people and part-time employees, according to the analysis.
Indeed, since the worst of the financial crisis in early 2009, median weekly wages for full-time men have fallen 3.5 percent, when adjusted for inflation, while wages for women have held steady, according to The Post’s analysis of Labor Department figures.
Related: Anxiety As Americans Grapple with Low Wages
This takes on added political significance since white males – many of whom fall squarely in the middle class -- constitute the heart of the Republican political base and helped the GOP sweep to victory in the Nov. 4 mid-term election.
White men voted for Republicans over Democrats by a 64 percent to 34 percent margin, the widest GOP advantage in this group since 1984, according to ABC News exist polling. Of those, seventy percent or more insist that the economy is still in bad shape.
So when Sessions warns that millions of illegal immigrants benefitting from Obama’s executive order will soon be shedding their menial, poorly paid jobs to compete with the middle class for better paying positions, he is singing to the GOP choir.
Economists, sociologists and others differ on the impact of immigration on the labor market and wages, but there is little doubt that a sudden influx of newly legalized immigrants can change hiring patterns.
One case in point was the aftermath of the Reagan-era 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which allowed about 1.7 million illegal immigrants to become lawful permanent residents and about one million farm workers to apply for a higher-level legal status.
According to The Wall Street Journal, federal data indicated that immigrants in farming and sales jobs were the most likely to move to higher-paying work in different industries. By the time they became naturalized citizens in the early 1990s, The Journal pointed out, just 4 percent of farm workers had remained in the same industry, while about 25 percent had shifted over to better paying jobs in construction and other labor-related employment.
However, about a third of those previously undocumented immigrants who worked in the service-sector or managerial and technical jobs remained in their employment sectors.
Related: Talking Past Each Other on Immigration Reform
George Borjas, a leading immigration economist at Harvard University frequently cited by immigration reform opponents, has found a negative impact from immigration on wages.
For example, a study by Borjas published in 2003 by the Center for Immigration Studies, estimated that immigration reduced the wages for native-born Americans who had not graduated from high school by 7.4 percent. A subsequent study in 2006 found that immigration significantly reduced both the wages and employment of less educated, native-born African Americans and Hispanics.
However, more recent studies by the Brookings Institution conclude that, on average, immigration raises the overall standard of living of American workers by boosting wages and lowering prices – and that it doesn’t necessarily result in immigrants fighting with native-born Americans for better paying jobs.
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