Every tax is a pay cut. Every tax cut is a pay raise.
Citizens for Limited Taxation
|Big money in illegal immigration||Sunday, April 17, 2005|
|Jennifer Kavanaugh 508-626-4416||Metrowest Daily News|
For all the philosophical arguments over illegal immigration, experts say
the bottom line is money: the income the immigrants make by working here,
the profits businesses reap by employing them, and the money consumers save
by purchasing the fruits of their illegal labor.
As the public debate intensifies, more undocumented immigrants find their way within U.S. borders. Last month, the Pew Hispanic Center released a study estimating that 10.3 million illegal residents were in the United States last year, and said that number has likely reached 11 million by now.
Opponents say illegal labor takes away jobs from Americans, lowers wages, and strains public resources with the extra people. Others say, however, that the country has allowed the practice to continue because the workers take low-paying jobs native Americans don't want, and they help keep prices down.
"The country's conflicted because not everyone's affected the same," said Michael Quinn, assistant professor of economics at Bentley College in Waltham.
Native-born workers who seek unskilled jobs but cannot get them because of competition from undocumented workers are directly hurt, Quinn said. But more affluent households benefit, he said, because the produce is cheaper in the grocery store and workers are available to provide services to them.
To bridge the opposing sides, President Bush last year proposed a "guest worker" program that would grant foreigners temporary work visas, but to mixed reviews. Policy makers and investigators find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, between the law-and-order crowd and the business community, Quinn said.
"The government has a responsibility to crack down on illegal activity, but they also know if they do that, some industry isn't going to function," Quinn said. "If they did fervently crack down on it, it could destroy entire industries. You would have produce shortages in grocery stores, and people would be up in arms."
In Massachusetts, opponents of illegal immigration focus on the growing estimates of newcomers. According to the Pew study, the state has anywhere between 200,000 and 250,000 undocumented residents, though other estimates place the number much higher, at 87,000.
Lorrie Hall, founder of the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform, said illegal immigration's costs to society far outweigh employers' gains. She said the illegal immigrants take away jobs from citizens and drive up unemployment rates. She said there is a direct correlation between the number of out-of-work Americans and the crowds of people coming over the borders.
Other commentators have disputed that, saying increases in undocumented workers during the 1990s economic boom didn't force Americans out of work, and that other factors are in play. But Hall sees the connection in her family. She said her son-in-law, who lost a high-paying, high-tech job, cannot find work in carpentry or landscaping, his other skills, because those jobs have been taken.
"It's clearly displacing those individuals," Hall said. "Illegals will work for anything, will work for cheap."
The Duxbury resident said she founded the organization, which she said has about 200 members, out of concern that the influx of people was causing overdevelopment and draining the water supply on the South Shore.
"You can never blame the immigrants for wanting to come here," Hall said. "Your anger is directed at the federal government. It's their fault."
Some pro-immigration groups accuse the politicians and business leaders of trying to have it both ways -- publicly condemn illegal activity but privately welcome the taxes undocumented residents do pay, and the less expensive labor they provide.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said undocumented workers are victimized because they lack the protections of wage laws, workers compensation and civil rights laws.
The organization calls for reform of immigration laws, but said that reform has to include "a path to citizenship" for the workers, as well as workplace protections.
"There's definitely a conflict in society," Noorani said. "There is a frustration that the system seems to be broken, but we don't know how to fix it."
From time to time, the federal government does make headlines for high-profile crackdowns, including the 2003 sweep of Wal-Mart stores for illegal workers cleaning their stores. The sweep hit stores in 21 states, including the Northborough store.
Wal-Mart recently paid $11 million in fines to settle the case, but blamed the problem on subcontractors.
On a more local level, federal investigators focused on Hopkinton business owner Chung Mou "Steven" Wong, who runs Mandarin Westboro and other Chinese restaurants in the state, accusing him of trying to smuggle in Chinese workers for financial gain.
In January, Wong pleaded guilty to harboring an alien, his cousin, and received two years probation. He said he was just trying to help out a family member. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston did not return calls for this story.
But beyond the high-profile cases, the number of employers fined and workers arrested as the result of workplace investigations has fallen dramatically in the past decade or so.
According to Homeland Security statistics, employer investigations in fiscal year 1992 resulted in 8,027 arrests of illegal workers, and 1,063 employer fines. By 2003, the arrests had dropped to 445, and the fines down to 124, though the fines had rebounded from the 2002 low of 13.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for tougher enforcement of immigration laws, blasts the government's enforcement efforts on its Web site.
"The department of Homeland Security had no plan for identifying and removing the bulk of the illegal alien population, whose numbers continue to rise," the organization says. "Most illegal aliens remain safe unless they are arrested for a crime."
In its 2003 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, the Department of Homeland Security attributed the figures to the changing priorities after Sept. 11. Quinn said the government has shifted resources in response to the terrorism threat.
"Immigration has to worry about terrorism, then the drug runners," Quinn said. "And then there's the guy picking lettuce in California, and he probably doesn't rate that high on the list of dangers to America."
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