US Immigrants & the Economy

Manila Bulletin, April 14, 2006 | Go to article overview

US Immigrants & the Economy


Byline: ANDREA HOPKINS Reuters

WASHINGTON a" Massive street protests have catapulted immigration to the top of the US agenda, pitting workers against business interests. But a crackdown on illegal workers could create huge economic strains for all.

Proponents of a guest worker program, including President George W. Bush, argue that the mostly Hispanic immigrants fill a labor shortage. Opponents, including some labor unions, say they take jobs from Americans, drive down wages, strain social services and increase poverty.

Economists say it is impossible to gauge the exact impact of an undocumented workforce intent on staying in the shadows.

Still, many analysts say driving illegal immigrants out of the workforce, as proposed by some conservative lawmakers, would strain labor markets at a time when the unemployment rate is already at a 4-1/2-year-low.

"Rounding up millions of workers and sending them back to Mexico is going to be more disruptive to the economy than not, so it makes sense to move them into the mainstream," said Jeff Faux, of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, more than 7 million of the estimated 11.5 million to 12 million unauthorized migrants in the United States are employed.

That means about one in 20 US workers is illegal, and the share is even higher in specific industries: about 24 percent of workers in farming, 17 percent in cleaning, 14 percent in construction and 12 percent in food preparation.

With US unemployment at 4.7 percent, officials at the Federal Reserve and White House have said the economy is near full employment a" the point at which the scarcity of job applicants threatens to spark wage inflation.

John Gay, senior lobbyist at the National Restaurant Association, said competition for workers in many industries is already stiff.

"You canat open a restaurant ... unless you have a full staff in the back of the house a" dishwashers and prep cooks and busboys, jobs that have typically been filled by immigrants in the industry," Gay said. …

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