November 18, 2005

Working immigrants may help economy, experts say

By David Kassabian
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON – A panel of economic, legal and public policy experts told a House committee Wednesday that immigrants, both legal and illegal, are a key part of the U.S. economy and don’t hurt native job-seekers to the extent commonly thought.

“With the exception of native-born high school dropouts, all studies suggest modest immigration effects of reduced earnings on the native-born workforce,” said Harry Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “For most workers there is a consensus that the effects are modest if they’re negative at all.”

Immigrants reduce any drain they cause on the economy because they are also consumers and because they are still concentrated in only a handful of areas in a few states, Holzer said.

“Mechanically, in absence of immigration, the economy will not grow,” said Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, to the Committee on Education and the Workforce. “Just in terms of bodies, it’s clear immigration is central to the future demography of the United States.”

The economy will always adjust to an influx of new workers; the question is how large a negative impact native workers with similar education and skills will experience, Holtz-Eakin said.

Foreign-born workers make up 14.5 percent of the U.S. labor force, according to data presented by the Congressional Budget Office. Of the 21.4 million foreign-born workers in the United States, 39 percent are from Mexico and Central America.

Most of those immigrant workers have, on average, three years less schooling than native workers and lack high school diplomas, Holtz-Eakin said. Because of this, immigrants hold a disproportionately large share of jobs that require very little education, like dishwashers and maids, he added.

Without new immigrant workers, some companies might move outside of the United States, while opportunities created for native workers may be lost, Holtz-Eakin said.

Immigration does have a definite impact on lowering wages in low-skill jobs, said Steven A. Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies here. There is also little evidence that immigrants only do jobs Americans do not want, he added, but it would be a mistake to think every job taken by an immigrant is a job lost by a native.

A slew of bills that would change immigration and labor standards are before Congress, but are not likely to be addressed before next year. Representatives on the committee made few comments about whether immigration laws should be strengthened or left alone.

Several committee members questioned the interpretation of the data and the extent to which native workers are being replaced by immigrants.

Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., criticized employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens, calling for more employer scrutiny.

“It seems to me some of the onus needs to be put on the employers,” Osborne said.

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