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Experts disagree over impact of illegal immigrants on the work force

At the heart of the debate over illegal immigration is a question that burns as hot as the afternoon sun hovering over the Central Valley: Are illegal immigrants doing the work that no one else wants, or are they stealing jobs from Americans and dragging down their wages?

To some extent, both are true. Some jobs might go unfilled — even in tough times — without illegal immigrants.

But there are drawbacks. Illegal immigrants push down wages for legal workers in food-processing, factory and service jobs, economists say. Because illegal immigrants will work for almost any wage, employers have little reason to pay other workers more. Sometimes, jobs that low-skilled Americans would be willing to do, such as washing dishes and cleaning bathrooms, are instead taken by illegal immigrants.

Illegal immigrants help the nation’s private-sector economy by providing cheap labor. But their competition with low-skilled American workers and their strain on local government budgets cancel out that boost for the nation’s overall economy, some economists say.

In the end, illegal immigration in the Valley means businesses are big winners while many blue-collar workers lose out.

Farmworker groups have tried to prove that we need illegal immigrants. In 2006, as Congress was considering immigration reform, immigrant workers around the country either stayed home or joined protests for the May 1 “Day Without Immigrants” economic boycott.

In the central San Joaquin Valley, the United Farm Workers of America estimated that tens of thousands of field workers didn’t show up for work. Restaurants, landscape contractors, food manufacturers and growers all struggled to make it through the day with skeleton crews.

Varied economic benefit

Economists say illegal immigrants play a key role in the nation’s economy: Their willingness to work for low wages helps keep American businesses competitive and lowers the cost of goods and services.

But their economic benefit is very small. One researcher estimated that it represents only the slightest fraction of the country’s gross domestic product — 3 cents for every $100 the economy generates. That means that most businesses are only marginally more efficient thanks to illegal immigrants, although some businesses that rely heavily on them benefit greatly.

The role of illegal immigrants has become more critical because Americans are, on average, much more educated now than half a century ago. The economy needs immigrants to fill the low-skill jobs, some economists say.

Dragging down wages

Many economists say illegal immigrants have hurt the wages of low-skilled U.S.-born workers. One economist, Harvard University’s George Borjas, concluded that wages fall by 3 to 4 percent for every 10 percent increase in the number of workers in a particular skill group.

In other words, more competition for jobs means lower pay. He found that the average wage of U.S.-born high school dropouts decreased by 5 to 8 percent from 1980 to 2000 because of competition with immigrants.

The Center for Immigration Studies found that one company had to raise its pay after being forced to fire illegal workers. In 2006, federal immigration agents arrested 1,300 employees at six meat-processing plants owned by Swift & Co., where an estimated 23 percent of the workers were illegal immigrants. After the raids, the company advertised heavily for new workers and paid employees bonuses if they recruited others.

Within five months, the plants were running at full capacity again without illegal immigrants, according to the report. Meanwhile, wages increased slightly at two of the plants and four offered signing bonuses.

Some experts say employers pay illegal immigrants less than other workers because they are less willing to demand a raise or draw attention to their legal status — and that drives down the wages for all workers. Researcher Anita Alves Pena, an economics professor at Colorado State University, found in a study earlier this year that illegal immigrant farmworkers earn 5 to 6 percent less in hourly wages than legal immigrant workers.

Debate on raising pay

So what would happen if there were no illegal immigrants? A mass deportation would certainly hit the agriculture industry hard, at least in the short term. But it would also be easier for other less-educated, U.S.-born workers and legal immigrants to find jobs, and their wages could improve.

Some economists also say that if farmers paid better wages, more U.S.-born workers would be willing to work in agriculture.

Experts also say the cost of food would rise only slightly if wages increased. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, for example, that the wages for production workers account for only 7 percent of retail beef prices and 9 percent of pork prices.

Not everyone agrees increasing wages would work. Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, an association of agriculture businesses in the Western U.S., said farmers would have to dramatically increase wages to convince U.S.-born workers to take a job in the fields — and even if they did, many would probably work just long enough to make a little money and then quit.

Cunha said that raising wages would hurt growers, whose No. 1 cost is labor. Grocery chains would turn to foreign countries to buy cheaper food, he said.

Besides, he said, most workers born here are unwilling to work mind-numbing food-processing jobs or do back-breaking fieldwork — no matter what they’re paid. According to government data, 98 percent of farmworkers in California are immigrants.

Some experts say there’s also a cultural stigma to working in the fields that would be difficult to overcome if farmers had to depend on U.S.-born workers.

“They’re doing a lot of jobs other people simply won’t do,” said John Hernandez, executive director of Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “I’m not going to go in there and slaughter a cow.”

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