While growing up in Mexico, I heard many stories of people who were going to work in the United States, some illegally, so they could provide a better life for their families. To them, they were going to the land of opportunity, where jobs were plentiful for people who were willing to work hard. They planned to go to the United States and do the work that Americans didn’t want, while getting paid more than they could make in Mexico.
Many of them sought work in construction, where their lower pay would mean cheaper homes and buildings for Americans. Although there was the risk of getting arrested and deported, it seemed like a risk worth taking to many people. Now that I live in the United States, I have seen the other side of the story. I have seen the economic difficulties that Americans face in their own country. It is even harder for someone like me, who came here legally, but faces challenges that many Americans don’t.
I have met people here who are working illegally, and see their daily struggle to survive. I have also met Americans who were born here and have difficulty finding work. Instead of plenty of jobs for everyone, good jobs are scarce with many people fighting to get them. I see the resentment some people have toward those who are here illegally, and working for lower wages, making it harder for others to complete. These observations have made me wonder; do illegal workers help or hurt the economy?
Dr. George Borjas, Professor of Economics and Social Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, found that the earnings of US born workers were reduced by an average of 3.7% by immigrant workers, both legal and illegal. The greatest effect was to US born workers without a high school degree as well as young workers. In his research, published in the paper Increasing the Supply of Labor Through Immigration, Dr. Borjas writes “The 10 million native-born workers without a high school degree face the most competition from immigrants, as do the eight million younger natives with only a high school education and 12 million younger college graduates.”
In the study entitled The Economic Logic of Illegal Immigration by Gordon H. Hanson, Professor of Economics at University of California, Gordon
discovered that immigration has a modest impact on the economy, pushing incomes slightly lower for low-skilled native workers, and pushing incomes slightly higher for highly-skilled native workers.
However, because legal immigrant workers encounter more restrictions and delays in entering the work force, it is illegal immigrations that provide a fluid, low-skilled workforce that is needed during economic booms. Gordon states “It (Illegal immigration) provides U.S. businesses with the types of workers they want, when they want them, and where they want them. If policy reform succeeds in making U.S. illegal immigrants more like legal immigrants, in terms of their skills, timing of arrival, and occupational mobility, it is likely to lower rather than raise national welfare.”
In June of 2011, the state of Alabama passed the strictest anti-immigration law in the United States, known as HB 56. Alabama is an unlikely state for such a law, since only 120,000 of the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants live in Alabama. However, politicians painted illegal workers as an epidemic, contributing to budget shortfalls and high unemployment. Included in the law, is a requirement for police to validate a person’s immigration status if they have “reasonable suspicion”.
The law penalizes anyone who employs, transports, or rents to an illegal immigrant. As a result of this law, Alabama farmers, who opposed the law from the beginning, saw their workforce disappear. In an article appearing in Mother Jones magazine entitled Help Not Wanted, by Paul Reyes, Alabama farmers expressed their frustration with HB 56. Their problem is that the work they have is difficult and requires experience and training that most native workers don’t have or are unwilling to do. In the article, Jerry Spencer, who runs Grow Alabama, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) project, is quoted. During a single month, Spencer employed 75 Alabamians to work on a farm, picking tomatoes. Of the 75 workers, 15 of them showed up more than once and only 3 lasted for the whole month.
Spencer says “A Mexican can honestly make $300 a day at the height of tomato season, but that’s based on $3 per box. The (Alabamian) workers we took up there couldn’t come close. I’m going to be generous and say $20 a day was average. I actually was proud to see how hard they did work, but they couldn’t live up to the efficiency, and therefore the speed and production, that Mexicans could”
An earlier law that prohibited employers from hiring illegal workers was the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which was passed by congress in 1986. This act created penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. However, illegal workers have found a way to counter this by obtaining fake Social Security numbers and green cards, which can be purchased easily in most immigrant neighborhoods for a small fee. These false documents allow employers to claim ignorance if caught hiring an illegal worker.
This also means that the illegal workers are paid the same way as other workers, along with tax deductions. In an article appearing in Generations magazine entitled Not on the Radar: Illegal Immigrant are Bolstering Social Security, author Eduardo Porter provided the following statistic, “The estimated seven million or so illegal immigrant workers in the United States are now providing the system with a subsidy of as much as $7 billion a year.” It is important to note with this statistic, that illegal workers are not eligible for Social Security benefits. Their Social Security deductions are being paid to retired legal workers.
While illegal workers with false documents are paying taxes and contributing to the Social Security system, illegal immigrant workers also add a financial strain on city and state budgets. For example, in states like California, where one third of foreign born people in the United States live, children of immigrants are affecting public schools. In the book Immigration in a Changing Economy: California’s Experience, authors Kevin F. McCarthy and George Vernez advocate that more education needs be provided in California public schools for English proficiency for immigrant children “lest they, and California with them, fall behind the rest of the country” warns McCarthy and Vernez.
Illegal workers may have dreams of making lots of money while working in the United States, but the truth is that they will face low-level jobs with the likelihood of exploitation.
In a study of illegal Mexican workers, which is documented by Francisco L. Rivera-Batiz in the study Undocumented workers in the labor market: An analysis of the earnings of legal and illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States, published in the Journal of Population Economics, it was found that 93.2% of male illegal workers and 87.4% of female illegal workers worked in service occupations. Furthermore, they made significantly less income than legal workers performing the same functions.
Although some of the pay discrepancy is due to their time spent in the United States and English proficiency, it does not explain all of the pay discrepancies. Rivera-Batiz writes, “The large proportion of the gap in wages between legal and illegal immigrants unexplained by differences in the measured characteristics of these two groups strongly suggests the presence of systematic discrimination against undocumented workers.”
After conducting my research, I have been surprised to learn that illegal immigration has a minimal impact on the overall US economy. The most negatively affected are young, low-skilled, less educated native workers, who experience slightly lower wages due to illegal immigrant workers. Highly-skilled native workers actually receive a slightly higher income due to illegal immigrant workers.
Illegal workers benefit of course, but they are also easy targets for exploitation, since they are often not paid the same as legal workers performing the same job functions, and do not receive the same benefits that legal workers do. The real winners from illegal immigration are the businesses that knowingly employ illegal workers. They receive a workforce willing to work for minimal wages, and perform jobs that many native workers are unwilling to do. Government agencies also benefit by receiving tax payments from illegal workers, while not having to pay out such benefits as Social Security. For these reasons, I foresee little change in Immigration laws, since the current situation benefits those with the most power and money.
(1) Borjas, G. J. (2004, May). In Increasing the Supply of Labor Through Immigration: Measuring the Impact on Native-born Workers. Retrieved Mar. 29, 2013, from http:// www.cis.org/articles/2004/back504.html
(2) Hanson, G. H. (2007, Apr. 26 ). In The Economic Logic of Illegal Immigration. Retrieved Mar. 29, 2013, from http://www.cfr.org/content/publications (3) McCarthy, Kevin F., Vernez, George. “Immigration in a Changing Economy: California’s Experience.” Rand, 1997: 338 EBSCOhost. Anoka Technical College, Anoka, Minnesota. 19 April 2013 http://www.ebsco.com (4) Reyes, Paul. “Help Not Wanted.” Mother Jones March/April 2012: EBSCOhost. Anoka Technical College, Anoka, Minnesota. 19 April 2013 . (5) Rivera-Batiz, Francisco L. “Undocumented workers in the labor market: An analysis of the earnings of legal and illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States” Journal of Population Economics (1999) 91-116
EBSCOhost. Anoka Technical College, Anoka, Minnesota. 29 March 2013 . (6) Porter, Eduardo. “Not on the Radar: Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security.” Generations Spring 2005, Vol. 29 Issue 1: 100-102
EBSCOhost. Anoka Technical College, Anoka, Minnesota. 29 March 2013 .