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Economists Untangle Truth About Jobs, Immigration

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Moving on now to the economic impact of illegal immigration, many businesses say illegal immigrants are not taking jobs from Americans. They say the workers do jobs Americans won't do. That view is echoed by President Bush, who's pushing for a guest worker program. But economists say the reality is a lot more complicated. To find out more, NPR's Chris Arnold went to the fishing piers of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

CHRIS ARNOLD: The harbor in New Bedford is lined with fish processing warehouses where immigrants, many of them illegal, find work. They stand on their feet for long hours in the cold, sharpening fillet knives and slicing up and de-boning the monkfish, cod and halibut that the fishing boats bring in. Anthony, who didn't want to use his last name, came here illegally from El Salvador six months ago to make money to send home. He says he could only make five dollars a day back home and some days couldn't afford food for his three young kids.

ANTHONY: (Through Translator): It's very difficult for him leave the family over there. Sometimes they really miss him. Daddy please if you can come home, I really miss you. That's what the daughter tells him all the time.

ARNOLD: Anthony says he doesn't know what to tell his two-year-old daughter on the phone except to lie to her and say he'll be home soon. But crossing the border is too risky and expensive to try very often.

Another woman working along the docks here didn't see her young son for 10 years. Workers here say this is one of their greatest hopes for immigration reform that they could get some type of legal status and be allowed to travel to see their families.

FRANK FERREIRA: Well I'm glad they're going to, they're going to try to do something.

ARNOLD: Further up the waterfront, Frank Ferreira is the general manager of the fish processing plant, AML International. He says he supports the proposal in the Senate to legalize the seven plus million undocumented workers across the country.

FERREIRA: I think that they should make it a little bit easier for these people 'cause these people are doing jobs that a lot of people normally would not do.

ARNOLD: Ferreira says for eight bucks an hour he just doesn't get anybody besides recent immigrants in applying for his fish cutting jobs. He says there is so much competition from cheap foreign fish producers that companies like his in the U.S. would go under without immigrant labor. Economists say he may be right, but they say without the millions of illegal immigrants, many employers in construction and other industries could afford to raise wages to attract American workers.

VERNON BRIGGS: Illegal immigration is a virus and it has got to be wiped out.

ARNOLD: Cornell University Economist Vernon Briggs feels very strongly that illegal immigrant workers hurt the most vulnerable American workers. Those without a high school degree and few skills.

BRIGGS: The low skilled workers, citizen workers in the United States, native born and naturalized citizens will always lose in the competition from, with illegal immigrants.

ARNOLD: But just how much have wages for Americans been pushed down? There aren't a whole lot of good numbers out there. But UC San Diego Economics Professor Gordon Hanson has studied the combined impact of both illegal and legal low skilled, low wage immigrants.

GORDON HANSON: Well the best estimate we have is that they've reduced wages for low skilled U.S. native workers by about eight percent over the last 20 years or so.

ARNOLD: And Hanson says it's only the very bottom 10 percent of the labor pool that's seen that impact.

HANSON: So when you look at the aggregate impact of illegal immigration on U.S. wages, it isn't all that large.

ARNOLD: Economists say there are some much more powerful forces keeping down wages. The biggest is technology. Alex Tabarrok is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

ALEX TABARROK: It's technology, computers and robots, which have raised the wages of high skilled workers and pushed down the wages of low skilled workers. So if you're against immigration, then you ought really to be against computers because they're much more important in the big picture.

ARNOLD: Some economists say even with tougher enforcements, as long as there is a demand for low wage immigrant labor in the U.S. and a supply of willing workers, immigrants will continue to find a way across the border. The question remains what to do with them. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chris Arnold
NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.