The Washington Post on August 24 had an article on the debate over whether employers need greater access to low-skilled foreign workers or whether this would result in higher unemployment for native low-skilled workers. The report provided data and arguments on both sides.

What was missing from the article was some historical perspective. The presence over time of low-wage foreign workers – especially illegal aliens – has held down wages for the jobs in which they have a major presence. This is most obvious in seasonal agricultural work, where inflation-adjusted wages today are lower than they were three decades ago. As wages deteriorated, these jobs became increasingly less attractive to native workers. And, in a vicious cycle, employers became increasingly dependent on illegal alien workers in order to stay competitive.

This cycle may also be seen in non-agricultural work. A study of janitorial workers in Los Angeles in the 1970s showed how employers replaced mostly black, unionized janitorial workers with Latino (mostly illegal alien) workers with a resulting major reduction in wages and the breaking of the union. See FAIR’s report here.

This phenomenon is important to understanding the validity of the argument made by today’s employers that despite high unemployment, especially among low-wage workers, they have difficulty finding workers. At least in part, that claim results from the major rise in illegal alien workers in the U.S. workforce who have increasingly taken jobs traditionally been held by native workers.

The availability of those foreign workers, and the fact that they are more beholden to their employer because of their illegal status, has mitigated pressure for wage increases. As employers hire more of the foreign workers, they become more dependent on them to fill their work crews in the same way that farmers have become more dependent on foreign workers.

This cycle will continue and the dependence on foreign workers will steadily increase as long as policymakers continue to provide increased numbers of foreign workers – as is proposed in the Senate-passed S.744. The cycle can only be broken by policymakers resisting the pressure to open the doors wider to foreign workers.