Jeff Sessions: Champion of the American Worker? Really?

Senator Jeff Session (R-AL) has been the Senate’s leading opponent of comprehensive immigration reform. He now chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee Immigration Subcommittee. On April 9, Senator Sessions published an opinion piece in the Washington Post, laying out his case against legal immigration.

During the immigration reform debates in previous congresses, Mr. Sessions has been an ardent opponent of giving our long-resident undocumented immigrants a way to gain legal status. In this piece, he touts his opposition to legal immigrants as well.

As is typical of immigration restrictionists, Mr. Sessions cloaks his anti-immigrant inclinations in arguments supporting the American worker. Let’s look at a couple of those arguments.

Immigration Is Not Behind Wage Stagnation

Mr. Sessions cites a time in the early part of last century when the U.S. reduced immigration quotas. During this time, he says, there was an increase in real median compensation for U.S. workers. He links to a chart in a report by the Economic Policy Institute, which indeed shows hourly compensation rising in the post-war era until 1970, after which time it rises very little.

The Economic Policy Institute report from which that chart is extracted makes no mention of immigration. It does, however, talk about why compensation has stagnated since 1970. In the view of the report’s authors,

Ample economic growth in the past three-and-a-half decades provided the potential to substantially raise living standards across the board, but economic policies frequently served the interests of those with the most wealth, income, and political power and prevented broad-based prosperity.

Such economic policies include

 …letting inflation consistently erode the purchasing power of the minimum wage, and allowing employer practices hostile to unionization efforts to tilt the playing field against workers.

Mr. Sessions cites a Pew Research Center analysis of the decline in the share of Americans in the middle class. That Pew analysis also makes no mention of immigration. By way of explanation, Mr. Sessions cites the work of economist George Borjas, who estimates that between 1980 and 2000, high levels of immigration reduced the wages of lower-skilled U.S. workers (not the middle class) by 7.4 percent.

Borjas is an outlier among economists who have researched the wage impacts of immigration. Most other research finds little or no impact, but most find that immigration has a positive overall effect on the wages of native workers, except that some research finds a small negative affect among some workers.

Sessions Opposed to Efforts to Help Workers

Even the 7.4 percent negative impact cited by Mr. Borjas pales in comparison to the effect of other policies that Mr. Sessions has had the opportunity to vote on. In 2014, for example, there was an effort in the Senate to pass legislation raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour. This would represent a 39 percent boost in pay for the more than 1.5 million workers who earn the federal minimum wage. Mr. Sessions voted against allowing the legislation to be brought to the Senate floor for debate, killing the effort.

Mr. Session has been in the Senate a long time, and there have been many opportunities to pass policies to help American workers. The AFL-CIO, which says its legislative efforts are directed at winning “good pay, retirement security, and safe work environments” for American workers, gives Senator Sessions a 12 percent lifetime voting record on legislation promoting these goals.

Pro-Worker or Anti-Immigrant?

Mr. Sessions claims to be concerned about the American worker, but instead of creating policies that would directly help them, he would rather rely on the theory (for which there is little evidence) that reducing immigration will boost wages for American works. Is he truly concerned for the American worker? Or is this concern merely to cloak a desire to keep immigrants out?

A more thorough rebuttal of Mr. Session’s Op Ed was penned by Alex Nowrasteh at the libertarian Cato Institute.