Illegal Immigration's Impact on the U.S. Economy

Bill Spriggs, senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) talk about the impact illegal immigration has on the American economy and what the U.S. government is — and is not — willing to do about it.

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ED GORDON, host:

New Mexico and Arizona are only two of the many states now feeling the pressure to curb illegal immigration. For more on the current immigration crisis and how the United States is addressing the issue, we're joined by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, representing Texas, and the 18th District there. She's also the ranking Democrat on the House Immigration Subcommittee. Also with us, Bill Spriggs, senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.

I thank you very much for joining us, both of you.

Congresswoman, let me start with you. We should note that you just took a tour of the US-Mexican border and also have issued and authored some legislation, one of three, which stands before the Congress. Talk to us about how big this problem is.

Representative SHEILA JACKSON LEE (Democrat, Texas): It's enormous. And certainly it is one that needs to be addressed. You know, I'm willing right now this morning to admit that we in the federal government, the executive, the administration and the Congress, have failed the American people as it respects to this particular issue. As I was on the border, it tracks pretty much what your reporter just reported, of large numbers of individuals coming across, the lack of resources at the border, border residents on the United States side being inundated with the human tide, if you will, that comes across their land, that results in the death of those immigrants, who are coming across, as well as injuries to their livestock. And primarily, of course, these are individuals coming for economic opportunity.

The area that I looked at was both the Rio Grande area but also simple land area where a three-feet difference made the difference between the United States and Mexico. What we're missing at the border is real focus. What we're missing is real resources. Border Patrol agents are well-trained, but they're lacking in resources, both in terms of technology and the ability to muster manpower. So I'm offering the Rapid Response Border Protection Act of 2005(ph) because I believe that the issue of immigration is a federal issue, and we must stem the tide of illegal immigration at the same time while we document those who are within our borders so that we can respond to some of the urban crisis and rural crisis of individuals in the United States who are undocumented. That's what has been missing in this process--resources, focus and an opportunity to immediately respond.

Now where I was, unfortunately, the ranchers there, they had land, as much as 100,000 acres. One, they fear for their life, on some instances, because...

GORDON: Yeah.

Rep. LEE: ...this has become a criminal activity with aliens, smugglers, smuggling people across the border and leaving them to die or leaving them to their own devices, which means that they jeopardize some of the peole who are residents there. The real crux of the problem is...

GORDON: Let's bring...

Rep. LEE: ...that they have no resources, state resources or federal resources, even though in the area that I was in they said the Border Patrol came faster than local police so it differs in different areas but the president, who has spoken about immigration for the last couple of years, has a two-pronged issue: address the immigration question inside the United States so that citizens are not feeling beleaguered...

GORDON: Yeah.

Rep. LEE: ...and particularly those in the minority community, but, as well, to protect the border by putting more resources there.

GORDON: And that's exactly what I want to get to. Bill Spriggs, one of the things that is interesting, and we saw Vicente Fox, the Mexican president's, comments not so long ago, talking about jobs that are taken up by illegal immigrants, specifically, and whether or not that is impacting on, in his words, `even jobs that African-Americans would not take.' But let's talk a little bit about how, as the congresswoman just broached the subject, the idea that many of these jobs may start off as that, but, in your findings, do you see that it is impactful to others who want to find, who are legal citizens here, employment?

Mr. BILL SPRIGGS (Senior Fellow, Economic Policy Institute): Well, it depends upon how the economy is performing. The labor market is like any other market. It depends upon supply and demand. In the last five years, the labor market has totally underperformed. We have seen the slowest job growth ever in the history of the United States in those five years so adding additional workers in the current labor market clearly will have a detrimental effect because we just aren't generating jobs. We have really not generated any private-sector jobs. All the jobs that have been generated have either been in the public sector or as a result of defense expenditures in the private sector and we continue to lose manufacturing jobs. If you contrast that with the '90s, when the economy was booming, we were generating lots of jobs, despite record immigration. You still saw that African-Americans had the highest share of folks with jobs in our history and our highest wages and our lowest unemployment rates. So it really depends upon the economy into which we're dumping immigration and in the current economy, it is exacerbating a weak labor market.

GORDON: Sheila Jackson Lee, when we look at the idea that, according to Northeast University(ph), 50 to 58 percent of the growth in the labor force over the years, 2000-2003, was due to foreign immigration, legal and illegal, in terms of their sector in the job market, when we talk about juxtaposing it to what is becoming increasingly a tighter job market, is there concern of yours that we are going to see a battle, if you will, between those who are here legally, seeking gainful employment, and those who are here illegally?

Rep. LEE: Absolutely. You're beginning to see it now, in fact. In cities where there is a high concentration of immigration, whether legal or illegal, and in many instances it's predominantly illegal in some of the southern border states, tensions are rising in the African-American community, both professional and non-professional. That's why I say that there has been a failure in establishing a realistic policy on behalf of the (unintelligible) persons present in the United States at this time.

Legislation that I'm offering, the Save America Comprehensive Immigration Reform, speaks to documenting individuals that are here. I'm not really that attracted to a guest worker program. The reason is because guests connotate `invite, come,' and, at the same time, it misleads because you ask people to come for a temporary job of three to six years and they have to leave if they don't have another job and I would think that they would not.

What I'd like to see happen is get to know who is here, get them in line, give them the opportunity to access legalization, separate and apart from those that are already in line on a legal status. Then take the resources that come about processing these individuals, invest in American jobs, require American employers to sign an affidavit that they needed an immigrant worker over a non-immigrant worker. Begin...

GORDON: Yeah.

Rep. LEE: ...to respond to the sensitivities of American workers, and I think Bill is very right. When an economy is structured so weak as this past years under this present administration, we have a real conflict and there needs to be real policies to address that.

GORDON: Bill Spriggs, let me ask you, with about a minute to go, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of, A, handling this situation along our borders, and, B, controlling it so we are not pitting African-Americans and other minorities against legal and illegal immigrants for jobs?

Ms. SPRIGGS: Well, I'm slightly pessimistic because all of this immigration is a result of globalization gone wild. And if we in fact were shipping out American manufacturing jobs and creating a middle class in other countries we wouldn't see this massive immigration but we see us losing industrialized jobs in the counties from which people are fleeing. They're also losing decent jobs. So it's a tight race to the bottom. And until we get a handle on the way and the path of globalization and make sure that people overseas are getting jobs at real wages, not at poverty wages that make them flee to the US, we're not going to see an end to this.

GORDON: All right. Bill Spriggs, senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, I thank you both for joining us.

Rep. LEE: Thank you for having us.

Mr. SPRIGGS: Thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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