Business, Economics and Jobs

The muddled debate over immigration and jobs


Protest by the Tea Parties Against Amnesty and Illegal Immigration in MN (Image by Flickr user Fibonacci Blue (cc:by-nc-sa))

This story was originally covered by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

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A major area of debate around immigration is jobs and unemployment. Undocumented immigrants have long been accused of "stealing" work from American citizens. The charge has been popping up a lot this year in election campaigns around the country.

Bill Hudak, a Republican candidate for Congress in Massachusetts asked: "Why is it that 10 percent unemployment continues? Is it possible that having so many illegal aliens in our country is that a reason why all of a sudden we have less jobs available for the people here?"

Kent Wong, who directs the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, says there is no correlation between the number of illegal immigrants and the rise of unemployment.

He asserts that many of the jobs that undocumented immigrants take aren't sought after by US citizens or legal residents. "It is very difficult to imagine many other Americans who have been laid off rushing into the fields to get jobs as farm workers."

The relationship between unemployment and immigration isn’t clear cut. Manuel Pastor, a Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, says studies show that immigrants are, "actually a net boon to the US economy in terms of economic growth for the most part because they provide complimentary labor."

According to Pastor, this complimentary labor -- in garment production, assembly or agriculture, for example -- is actually keeping certain industries alive in the US, which in turn provide jobs for more highly skilled workers.

"When you look at the cross effects of immigrant workers and undocumented workers, what you tend to find is that it’s a positive effect on overall employment in the US economy."

There are even positive effects on the federal level, "in terms of the taxes and Social Security contributions that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, make and that they often never take out later," says Pastor.

Kent Wong says recent studies from UCLA and USC show immigrants pay more into the economy than they take away. "Many undocumented immigrants pay many different types of taxes, including sales tax, auto taxes, some housing taxes, and yet they are ineligible to obtain government services."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.