Let’s jump to the conclusion: no, immigration is not “the importation of poverty”, at least not in the U.S. and probably not in other developed countries either.
When talking about “importing poverty” we should make the following distinction.
- Immigration can affect a country’s total poverty rate. Many immigrants are less well off than the native born, even after they’ve immigrated, because they come from poorer countries and because they’re usually lower skilled than the native born. Hence, an increase in immigration will push up the national poverty rate. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the same immigration flow will probably push down the global poverty rate: migrants usually improve their lot by migrating – they probably wouldn’t migrate if that were not the case (I focus on economic migrants here, not refugees or displaced persons). They are, on average, poor relative to the native population, but they were, in absolute terms, even poorer before they migrated.
- Immigration, however, can also affect, not the total poverty rate of the destination country, but the poverty rate of the native population in the destination country. This supposed effect occurs because immigration is said to alter the levels of supply of workers with different skills. These alterations (or “immigration-induced labor supply shocks”) can, theoretically, have an negative impact on wage levels or employment rates of the native population. This impact of immigrant-native labor market competition can in turn affect native (but also immigrant) poverty levels, since poverty is closely linked to wage evolutions.
It’s this second, supposed effect which of course produces the most political heat, spawning xenophobic political parties or a “push to the right” in existing parties. Here‘s a study disproving this effect:
we find little evidence of an impact of immigration on native poverty through immigrant-native labor market competition. Despite adverse wage effects on high school dropouts and small effects on the poverty rates of members of this group, the effects on native poverty rates are negligible. This latter result is largely driven by the fact that even among native-born poor households, most have at least one working adult with at least a high school education.
Apart from distortions in labor competition, there’s possibly a third effect through which immigration could have an impact on native poverty levels: anti-immigrant propaganda often includes statements about “welfare tourism”, immigrants coming over just to cash in on unemployment and other benefits. In doing so, the claim goes, they sap the country’s economic efficiency because high welfare spending implies high taxes. And an economy that’s weakened because of high taxes can result in more poverty. However, this as well is basically a myth. For the U.S., we have the following numbers disproving those claims:
Those immigrants aren’t coming here to have babies and they aren’t coming here to abuse social services. … [I]mmigrants use welfare at lower rates than natives. I should also add that if your concern is that some immigrants are receiving more in public benefits than they pay in taxes, you should keep in mind that so do 67 percent of Americans. … [T]he labor force participation rate for illegal immigrant males (ages 18 to 64) was 92 percent, compared to a rate of just 83 percent for native-born males. (source)
In the U.S., immigrants are just as likely to be unemployed as native born Americans. However, that’s not the case in all rich countries. In Belgium, for instance, the unemployment rate for immigrants is nearly two and a half times as high as it is for the native-born.
In the U.S., all talk about “welfare tourism” is highly dubious in light of the following:
The contributions by unauthorized immigrants to Social Security … are much larger than previously known… Stephen C. Goss, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration and someone who enjoys bipartisan support for his straightforwardness, said that by 2007, the Social Security trust fund had received a net benefit of somewhere between $120 billion and $240 billion from unauthorized immigrants. The cumulative contribution is surely higher now. Unauthorized immigrants paid a net contribution of $12 billion in 2007 alone… Somebody ought to say thank you. (source, source)