Who pays the price for cheap labor?

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Special Report: Dying to Work

Who pays the price for cheap labor?

U.S. businesses’ strategy costing lives, tax dollars By Pat Flannery and Dennis Wagner

The Arizona Republic

September 10, 2001

Across much of the nation, undocumented Mexicans have become vital to the agricultural, packing and restaurant industries, holding down your food bills.

They dominate construction jobs. They save you money pruning your trees, making the clothes you wear and cleaning your offices at bargain wages.

In wages earned and dollars spent, uninvited foreign labor generates a multibillion-dollar wallop, rivaling the economic power of a Third World nation or a Fortune 500 company.

The prospect of jobs has drawn a torrent of illegal immigrants across America’s 2,000-mile border with Mexico in recent years. More than 1,100 have died since 1997 trying to reach the land of opportunity.

In the stormy debate over illegal immigration, one point rarely gets contested: The core issues are economic. With the recent summit between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, The Arizona Republic spent two months researching the flow of migrants and their financial impact.

Major findings:

America’s population of illegal immigrants has increased tenfold since 1970 and tops 8 million today.

Scores of towns and workplaces across America, from Alaskan fishing villages to East Coast furniture factories, have been transformed by illegal migrants.

In some areas, economies are so hooked on illegal immigrants that leading industries would be devastated without their hands.

This cheap labor comes at a price: social upheaval and higher taxes for many U.S. citizens.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, charged with deporting undocumented workers and punishing businesses that hire them, yields to pressure from employers, advocacy groups and politicians, and does neither, except near the Mexican border.

The INS strategy of blockading popular border routes with high-tech gizmos and nearly 10,000 agents has yet to measurably cut the flow of illegal immigrants. Instead, crossers make high-risk and sometimes fatal marches across the desert.

The money trail

Critics contend that undocumented workers are parasites on the nation’s economy. Sympathizers say the sweat of those immigrants has fueled a golden era of U.S. prosperity.

Either way, undocumented workers make a substantial, if subtle, difference in your daily life and bank account.

"The country is changing dramatically as we speak," said Doris Meissner, INS commissioner during the Clinton administration.

"There are winners and losers where immigration is concerned. Over time, immigration is a net plus for society."

Undocumented migrants offer a more personal perspective, explaining that they cross a forbidden line between homeland and hope for only one reason: to work.

The Urban Institute estimates that America’s illegal immigrant population is growing by a half-million a year, nearly on par with legal immigration.

The influx has prompted a backlash from U.S. citizens who resent the intrusion and the government’s failure to enforce federal law.

Immigrant sympathizers counter that the government has devised a system that endangers migrants as they cross into the United States and victimizes them in the workplace.

"Border Patrol policy is killing people, and they don’t care," said Isabel Garcia, co-chairwoman of Tucson-based Derechos Humanos, a human rights group. "Their policy is closing all the ... traditional border crossings. People are being herded through the worst area so they can die."

The bottom line

There is no authoritative dollar figure on the cost-vs.-benefit of illegal immigration because undocumented labor operates in a shadow world. Consider whether illegal immigrants are taking American jobs and forcing wages down.

But what would happen if all the illegal immigrants were deported tomorrow?

"Our economy would tank," said Theresa Cardinal Brown, manager of labor and immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"The effect would be relatively modest," countered Camarota, because undocumented workers account for less than 1 percent of America’s economic output.

"There are no two countries in the world that share a border where the economic disparities are greater than between the U.S. and Mexico," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., who sees America serving as a "relief valve."

Mexican immigrants send an estimated $8 billion home each year to an impoverished nation.

America’s leaders appear headed down a middle path that offers something for all but the anti-immigration forces: limited amnesty, guest-worker programs and economic aid to Mexico.

John Micklethwait, U.S. editor of the Economist, said "The truth about America’s immigration muddle is that it suits most people most of the time. Employers get the workers they need, usually fairly cheaply; immigrants make a living and get an education for their children.

"And conservative voters are secure in the knowledge that their frontier is being patrolled. But they will not have to forgo their indispensable, low-cost gardeners or nannies."

-- PHO (owennos@bigfoot.com), September 10, 2001

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