Do undocumented workers hurt or help the economy?

By Father Tom Joyce, CMF| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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This has always been the chicken-and-egg question over unauthorized immigration. And the answer usually reflects where a person stands on immigration. Opponents are quick to argue that undocumented workers take jobs from the poor, while advocates respond most American workers don’t want those jobs. Opponents come back – suddenly advocates for labor unions and decent wages – that unemployed workers would snap up the jobs if they paid better. The advocates point to the fact that these are often back-breaking, dirty jobs that even desperate unemployed workers would never touch. Opponents reply that some of those jobs aren’t all that bad. Besides, the opponents argue, there the public costs – schools, hospitals, prisons – to which advocates answer that undocumented worker contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits.

The argument goes on and on that no ones’ satisfaction. Both sides often will wrap their arguments in science, providing evidence that seems to make their points. My bias, of course, is usually on the side of the advocates. Their research is more rigorous and comprehensive, though I admit I've been impressed by some of the evidence opponents point to. The Center for Immigration Studies is often quoted in the press as a foil to more immigrant friendly academia, yet they are tied informally to Numbers USA – an organization that doesn’t even like legal immigrants.

The immigration debate is hardly driven by science or even “facts”. It’s a political and emotional debate where facts can get in the way. Take Alabama, for instance. It had passed some of the most repressive state legislation with the deliberate intent of making the state unwelcoming to the undocumented. It would even use school children to drive them from the state. And indeed they are leaving in large numbers, so much so farmers see their crops rot in the fields for lack of harvesters, and businesses decline as the exodus grew. Now economists from the University of Alabama have estimated the law's cost to the state in economic activity has been up to $!0.6 billion.  Along with the embarrassment of arresting a German executive from Mercedes-Benz and Japanese worker from Honda, bad national press by going after undocumented parents through their kids, the state legislators are stunned by the “unindented consequences” of the law and now are talking about “tweeking” it. But the proposed changes are likely to be no more than cosmetic. Most legislators are happy with the “self deportation” the law has already created, despite the challenges in the court. The business community is not and worries that business will be taken away from Alabama. (See National Public Radio.)

There is, however, another side to the economic argument: What does the undocumented worker contribute? A lot according to recent study by the Houston Partnership. It estimates the gain to be about $1.4 billion a year to the economy of metropolitan Houston.  The authors feel similar results could be true of other Texas areas. A 2005 study by the Texas office of the comptroller estimate that, for the entire state, without undocumented labor the state would lose $17.7 billion in gross domestic product. While the costs of public services would have to be accounted for, still the study seems to indicate the contribution of undocumented workers is not insignificant economically. Naturally, opponents argue these studies don’t account for the real costs of public services to the undocumented. But I'm incline to believe undocumented workers contribute much to the economy and we would quickly notice it if they were all deported – voluntarily or forcefully. More would be gained by a rational and compassionate immigration reform.