Effects Would Trickle through Economy, Social Services and Culture; but the Extent of the Impact Is Difficult to Predict, Experts Say

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Byline: TERESA STEPZINSKI

As long as there is a financial incentive and opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families, immigrants will continue to live and work in the region, according to economists and social workers.

Few people question that a proposed general amnesty for illegal immigrants would have a substantial trickle effect on the region's economy, social services and culture. But the extent of that impact is difficult to predict, said professors at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro with expertise in those issues.

Immigration basically is an economic issue, said professor Anthony Barilla, a labor economist.

Businesses generally benefit from illegal immigrants because they are a cheap labor force who fill jobs that American workers don't want to do, he said.

Because they are in the country illegally, immigrants don't get workers' compensation if hurt on the job or other health benefits for themselves or their families. That also lowers the employer's operating costs, Barilla said.

Amnesty would change all that.

"If amnesty was granted, I think you'd see some businesses be reluctant to hire immigrants because it would cost them more," Barilla said. "Amnesty would give immigrants access to the minimum wage. Employers also would have to pay for workers' compensation, and that gets expensive."

Barilla cited Georgia's multimillion-dollar Vidalia onion industry as an example. If onion farmers had to hire legal immigrants, their operating costs would escalate.

"We'd see more expensive food products," he said. "If your labor costs go up, that cost will be passed on to the consumer. It's Economics 101."

On the other hand, the economy also stands to see significant changes under other congressional proposals to severely lock down on border patrol and force widespread deportations.

Georgia is the third-fastest growing market for Hispanics in the nation, said Jeff Humphreys, a researcher at the University of Georgia. The top three employers of Hispanics in the state are construction, manufacturing and recreation, respectively, he said.

Jimmy Fullard, president of the Glynn County Home Builders Association, said the immigrant workforce, and Hispanics in particular, help meet the demand in the six-county region his organization represents in Southeast Georgia.

Without the Hispanic work force, Fullard said there would be long delays in construction projects.

"It takes skilled employees to do this work," he said. "It's difficult to meet the demand for construction. There's been more work and less employees to produce. I don't think the Hispanics take jobs from anyone."

FEAR OF DISCOVERY

Illegal immigrants generally are reluctant to seek medical or other assistance from public agencies because they fear being discovered and deported, Barilla said.

That concern would be alleviated with amnesty.

However, amnesty probably wouldn't have any direct impact on most local American workers, he said.

"Unless they are willing to perform the labor-intensive jobs that are not the most attractive, the local workers won't be affected. Most local [American] workers aren't going to lose their job to an immigrant," Barilla said.

With amnesty, immigrants would benefit from higher wages, open access to health care and other social services.

It also would encourage their participation in civic organizations as well as schools and government to the benefit of the community as a whole, said professor Elizabeth Brown, a licensed clinical social worker. …