Will Trump’s crackdown harm the U.S. economy?

Executive Summary

The Trump administration’s efforts to tighten U.S. immigration policies are creating difficulties for industries that rely heavily on foreign-born workers. Some of the affected sectors, such as agriculture, construction and food services, employ mostly low-skill laborers. But high-tech businesses that depend on highly skilled foreign workers also have felt an impact; a large group of U.S. business executives complained last year that the administration was putting the country’s economic competitiveness at risk. President Trump and his supporters respond that uncontrolled immigration has harmed many U.S. workers, and that blacks and Hispanics are especially vulnerable. He cites the work of Harvard economist George J. Borjas, who argues that the influx of low-paid foreign-born workers has depressed wage growth. Other economists dispute Borjas’ conclusions and argue that immigration benefits the U.S. economy overall and allows native-born workers to move into more challenging and higher-paying jobs.

Key takeaways include:

  • Trump has proposed policy changes that would curtail both legal and illegal immigration.

  • Despite the sharp debate over immigration policy, the number of immigrants in the United States has fallen since the last recession, and the number of those deported has also declined in recent years.

  • U.S. agriculture is especially dependent on immigrant labor: Almost half of all farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, and in California, the level approaches 75 percent.

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Resources for Further Study



Borjas, George J., “We Wanted Workers: Unraveling the Immigration Narrative,” W.W. Norton & Co., 2016. A prominent immigration economist argues that immigration creates opportunities for the wealthy but adds so many low-skilled workers that it depresses the wages of lower-income Americans.

Peters, Margaret E., “Trading Barriers: Immigration and the Remaking of Globalization,” Princeton University Press, 2017. An associate professor of political science at UCLA says decisions by companies in wealthy countries to relocate overseas have lowered demand for low-skill workers in the wealthy countries and have helped fuel anti-immigration policies.


Borjas, George J., “Yes, Immigration Hurts American Workers,” Politico Magazine, September/October 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y9dkhwx8. The economist argues that an increasing supply of cheap labor caused by immigration has benefited U.S. employers while damaging employment prospects for U.S.-born workers.

Mayda, Anna Maria, and Giovanni Peri, “The economic impact of US immigration policies in the Age of Trump,” Vox CEPR Policy Portal, June 14, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yb53en9w. Two economists write that President Trump’s immigration policies will damage the U.S. economy but carry political benefits for him and his Republican Party.

Mohan, Geoffrey, “As California’s labor shortage grows, farmers race to replace workers with robots,” Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ycong7ey. Farmers are increasingly depending on robots to deal with a shortage of farmworkers caused by a slowdown in migration across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nowrasteh, Alex, “How Trump Is Really Changing Immigration: Making It Harder for People to Come Here Legally,” Cato Institute, May 13, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y9luxowd. A senior analyst at a libertarian think tank tracks the many ways the Trump administration has imposed challenges for foreigners to move to the United States.

Reports and Studies

Blau, Francine D., and Christopher Mackie, editors, “The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration,” National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/hc43b8k. Edited by an economics professor at Cornell University (Blau) and a statistician (Mackie), this report from the nation’s three independent science academies says immigration has little long-term effect on wages and employment prospects for U.S. citizens.

Chassamboulli, Andri, and Giovanni Peri, “The Labor Market Effects of Reducing the Number of Illegal Immigrants,” National Bureau of Economic Research, February 2014, https://tinyurl.com/y9mugtym. Two economists find that increasing deportation rates and tightening border controls weaken low-skilled labor markets, increasing unemployment among low-skill native-born workers.

Kerr, William R., and Sarah E. Turner, “Introduction to ‘US High-Skilled Immigration in the Global Economy,’” Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago, vol. 33, no. 3, 2015, https://www.nber.org/chapters/c13736. Two economists conclude that a rise in high-skill workers often drives a rise in innovations such as patents and other forms of scientific output.

Mayda, Anna Maria, et al., “The Effect of the H-1B Quota on Employment and Selection of Foreign-Born Labor,” National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ya84s7zm. A group of economists concludes that foreign workers with the greatest abilities and highest earnings potential are those most likely to be deterred from entering the U.S. labor market because of restrictions on H-1B visas, which are aimed at those with special expertise.

The Next Step


“Farmers hit hard by Trump’s policies on trade, immigration,” CBS News, July 16, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y73pujuf. Farmers in the United States are growing increasingly anxious, some even quitting the industry altogether, in response to the fallout from President Trump’s immigration policies and tariff wars.

Gomez, Alan, “Mollie Tibbetts case exposes farms’ worst-kept secret: hiring undocumented immigrants,” USA Today, Aug. 24, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y9e6zulv. The slaying of a U.S. citizen by an undocumented farmworker last year has pushed some lawmakers to propose a bill requiring all businesses to use a verification system to identify undocumented employees.

Gray, Sarah, “Here’s How Immigration Policy Impacts Your Avocados and Other Produce,” Fortune, June 19, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybhcb6nr. Stricter immigration policies have taken a particularly hard toll on California, where 1.5 million out of 2 million farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, according to the president of the Western Growers Association.


Baron, Ethan, “H-1B: As immigration furor roils Silicon Valley, Canada smooths way for techies,” Mercury News, updated Oct. 13, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ycujtb7f. Canada’s streamlined processes for obtaining employment visas and permanent residency status appeal to highly skilled foreign workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields as the Trump administration promises more visa scrutiny.

Frenkel, Sheera, “Microsoft Employees Protest Work With ICE, as Tech Industry Mobilizes Over Immigration,” The New York Times, June 19, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybo4mrm5. Tech workers at major companies, including Apple, Facebook, and Google, have opposed President Trump’s immigration policies with protests and fundraisers.

Tucker, Kendall, “American Tech Needs Immigrants -- President Trump, Don’t Make It Any Harder,” Forbes, Dec. 6, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yb6oeygp. The Department of Homeland Security proposed a rule last year that would increase oversight and tighten restrictions on visa applicants, which could further strain the existing skills gap at U.S. tech companies, says the founder of an analytics startup.


American Immigration Council
1331 G St., N.W., Suite 200, Washington, DC 20005
The council provides research, policy analysis and litigation services to promote undocumented immigrants’ rights.

Cato Institute
1000 Massachusetts Ave, N.W., Washington, DC 20001-5403
A think tank that advances libertarian views on immigration and other issues.

Center for Immigration Studies
1629 K St., N.W., Washington, DC 20006
The center provides research and data to advocate for stricter immigration limits.

Hamilton Project
1775 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20036
A public-policy research organization that offers proposals to promote U.S. economic growth, including through immigration policy.

Migration Policy Institute
1400 16th St., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036
A think tank that analyzes the movement of people worldwide.

National Conference of State Legislatures
444 North Capitol St., N.W., Suite 515, Washington, D.C. 20001
A non-governmental organization that collects fiscal and policy information on immigration and other issues to support members and staffs of state legislatures across the country.

National Immigration Law Center
3450 Wilshire Blvd., #108 – 62, Los Angeles, CA 90010
An organization that defends the rights of low-income immigrants and litigates on their behalf.

RAND Corporation
1776 Main St., Santa Monica, CA 90401
A think tank that conducts research and analysis on immigration and other issues.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680503.n1