Friday, April 4, 2008

"They Took Ur Jerbs!"

Perhaps the most common argument against immigration and especially "illegal" immigration is that the immigrants take jobs away from hard-working, honest Americans. I've always found this to be more than a little strange.

While standing in Home Depot the other morning, the silliness behind this line of argument was abundantly clear to me - in this still relatively prosperous area of New Jersey, just about the only other people in the store were Latino immigrants. Most of them appeared to be contractors preparing for renovations on a home of some sort. I only saw one non-Latino in the store who appeared to be a contractor (and I was there for a solid half an hour).
Thinking about this, I recalled that in my time in the DC suburbs of Northern Virginia (another prosperous area of the country), the Home Depot was also usually filled with Latino contractors. And I remembered all too well the lines of mostly illegal immigrants I used to pass regularly waiting for work at the local 7-11.

The point is this: immigrants tend to go where the jobs are, and where the labor markets are tightest. In other words: they're rational human beings. They don't go where there is a high unemployment rate, but instead they go where the unemployment rate is lowest and jobs are most plentiful. And indeed, the states with the highest per capita immigration populations (2005 data) are states that we generally associate with a strong, stable economies, and a fairly high quality of life: California, New York (although the upstate economy is awful, most of the immigrants tend to be in the prosperous downstate area), New Jersey, Florida, and Arizona. Other states with immigrant populations greater than 10% (2005 data) include states like Massachusetts, Nevada (which was a boom state at the time), Illinois (presumably mostly in the Chicago area), and Connecticut. States with the lowest immigrant populations included the Southeast (except for Georgia, where Atlanta was a boom town at the time), Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio- all areas generally associated with comparatively weak economies.

This would seem to blow the job-stealing argument against immigration out of the water. But there's more. I crunched some numbers and found that the strongest anti-immigrant attitudes are in places with the fewest immigrants. Meanwhile, I found that the weakest anti-immigrant attitudes are found in places with the highest number of immigrants. In other words, the people most likely to be anti-immigrant (and therefore to think that immigrants hurt economies) are the people least likely to actually be affected by immigration. The only logical explanation for this is therefore rank nativism and scapegoating....they are blaming immigration for their problems even though they are almost entirely unaffected by immigration compared to the rest of the country.

To do this, I compared the 2005 immigrant percentages (this was the most recent data I could find) against exit poll data from this year's Republican primaries on the question "What should be done with illegal immigrants?" (This question was not usually asked in the Democratic primaries; in addition, immigrants tend to be heavily Democratic, which means their presence was unlikely to skew data much in a Republican primary). This question was asked in a total of 24 Republican primaries this year. What I found was a very clear trend in which the higher a state's immigrant population, the less likely GOP voters in that state were to answer "Deport them" (the most extreme anti-immigrant answer included) on this question.

I'm too lazy to calculate r-squared and p values for this data, but from the looks of it, it appears quite statistically significant by political science standards. The scatter plot is above. Should anyone be willing to calculate those numbers, I would be eternally grateful, and will provide you with the raw data.
Lest anyone think that this data is skewed by the level of conservatism in the relevant GOP primary or by the region in which the state is located, I want to point out some data that disprove that. First, New Hampshire (a relatively moderate state by GOP standards) has one of the lowest immigrant populations, and one of the most virulently anti-immigrant voter bases (50% answered "Deport them"). Second, Texas, with a high immigrant population but a very conservative GOP base has one of the lowest "Deport them" percentages (37%). In addition, Utah, with a very conservative GOP base but a moderate immigration population was tied for the lowest "Deport them" percentage (35%).
In my mind, this graph I've put together shows an extremely strong likelihood that strong anti-illegal immigrant attitudes are heavily colored by rank nativism and irrational scapegoating and stereotypes.
NOTE: For the record, the states included in my study were: VA, OK, MI, SC, AZ, NY, AL, NJ, CT, CA, NH, FL, MO, UT, WI, GA, TN, IL, LA, TX, MD, MA, MS, and OH.