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Home News The True Cost of Illegal Immigration: In Plain English

The True Cost of Illegal Immigration: In Plain English

Industry News, Labor & Litigation

An analysis that dispels myths and lays out the facts about the cost of illegal immigration -- in plain language, for once.

Yahoo! News | October 31, 2006

An analysis that dispels myths and lays out the facts about the cost of illegal immigration -- in plain language, for once.

1. Do illegal immigrants really take jobs from American workers?

Yes, they do.

There is no doubt that to many native-born U.S. workers illegal immigrants represent competition, plain and simple. The economic platitude that “immigrants take jobs no American would do” – expressed by both President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox – is only partly true. Many Americans wait tables, wash dishes, mop floors and lay bricks for a living. In fact, more than 80 percent of jobs in the farming, cleaning, construction and food preparation sectors – jobs usually associated with illegal immigrants – are held by native-born Americans.

Out of 473 job classifications, as assigned by the Center for Immigration Studies, just four are made up predominately by illegal immigrants: stucco masons, tailors, produce sorters and beauty salon workers.

Which is a fancy way of saying there aren’t many jobs that American workers won’t do.

2. But aren’t there some crucial American industries that rely heavily on immigrant workers?


Slightly less than half of America’s farm workers are in this country illegally, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In fact, last year more than a billion dollars worth of lettuce rotted in the fields of Arizona because farmers couldn’t marshal enough seasonal (read: illegal) help.

And Big Ag isn’t the only industry hiring massive amounts of illegal workers. Trailing closely behind are restaurants, construction, food processing, landscaping and the hospitality industry. In other words: Many, many American businesses count on the hearty work ethic and strong backs of illegal workers to stay afloat.

Financial analysts have even begun warning clients that if restrictive immigration legislation is passed at the federal level, stock portfolios heavy on these industries could suffer dramatically.

Another rarely discussed consideration is the fact that illegal immigrants often fill jobs that would otherwise be outsourced. For example, without immigrants filling the ranks of the U.S. garment industry, Americans would undoubtedly be importing even more clothing and textiles from countries like China, further widening the already chasmal trade deficit.

Illegal immigrants do take jobs from Americans on occasion, but they also contribute significantly to a number of important U.S. industries in a way that American workers simply can’t. To assume that business as usual can continue in America without them is myopic.

3. Does the presence of illegal immigrants drive down wages for American workers?

Yes, a little.

Several recent studies have demonstrated that one segment of workers in particular – the lowest-paid, lowest-skilled Americans – find their wages depressed across the board by illegal immigrants. (The decrease is 5 percent in one study, 7.2 percent in the other.) African and Hispanic American workers are hit especially hard, due to their disproportionately large representation in this economic demographic.

Yet the situation becomes less cut-and-dry when we stop to consider that illegal immigrant workers drive down the cost of almost all goods and services for all consumers. Thus, by working for such low wages, illegal workers actually increase the spending power of Americans.

So while Americans’ paychecks might be a bit lighter because illegal immigrants are willing to work for so little, their dollars are also stretching further.

4. What about federal benefits and aid programs? Do illegal immigrants take more than they give?

Probably not – at least if you look at the big picture.

Some parts of the country have unambiguous financial crises on their hands, and part of the blame belongs to illegal immigrants. California, for example, loses an estimated $10 billion annually taking care of its illegal immigrants.

There are a number of government programs that are being crushed under the weight of illegal immigrants – most seriously healthcare. Illegal immigrants don’t qualify for government health programs, and businesses that hire them tend not to offer health coverage of any kind.

As a result, when illegal workers become sick or injured – and they become injured at a far higher rate than native workers due to the demanding physical nature of their jobs – they inevitably take the only route available to them: They head to the nearest emergency room. Hospitals are required by federal law to provide emergency care regardless of patients’ visa status or ability to pay. Thus, some areas of the country have experienced a tremendous drain in healthcare resources as illegal immigrant populations have risen ($2.5 billion a year, according to Census Bureau data). Prisons and schools also face major hurdles in accommodating the expanding illegal immigrant population.

But that is just one side of the story. Many other governmental programs actually benefit from the presence of illegal immigrants, particularly Social Security and Medicare. Both programs – intended to benefit the elderly – receive billions in tax revenue from illegal immigrants. Unlike normal taxpayers, however, illegal immigrants will never be able to recollect their benefits later on down the line, thus providing a windfall.

5. So what’s the bottom line? How do illegal immigrants affect the economy as a whole?

Sorry, folks. The bottom line is that there isn’t a bottom line.

In many ways, illegal immigrants contribute heavily to America. They work low-paying, physically demanding jobs that many Americans – though not all – would rather not do. In many cases, they do jobs that would otherwise be outsourced altogether. And in doing so, they make money for innumerable tax-paying U.S. companies and drive down the cost of goods and services for every American.

In other undeniable ways, illegal immigrants are taking a heavy toll on the system. Without a comprehensive federal policy in place, many cities and states are being crushed under the burden of providing basic services for them. And with two-thirds of illegal immigrants lacking high school diplomas, the amount they can reasonably be expected to contribute to the tax pool is decidedly less than other better-educated American workers.

Ultimately, there are too many variables to determine the exact financial impact of illegal immigration in the United States. But one thing is certain: Not determining it will prove most costly of all.

Please visit The True Cost of Illegal Immigration: In Plain English for media rich content and related stories. Produced as part of the Carnegie Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education.


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