Report: 5 Percent of Labor Force Are Illegal Immigrants

The number of illegal immigrants in the United States has grown to nearly 12 million, according to a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center. Pew says that illegal immigrants make up nearly five percent of the labor force. About 20 percent of that population works in construction, and four percent is employed in agriculture.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. That's according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center that came out today. According to the study, more than half a million immigrants came to the U.S. illegally in the last year alone. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, illegal workers now make up nearly 5 percent of the U.S. workforce.

CARRIE KAHN: Not surprisingly, illegal workers are concentrated in the lowest wage industries in the country. Nearly a quarter of all farm workers are here illegally, and according to the Pew Hispanic Center, 17 percent of those cleaning the nations' offices and 12 percent preparing food in the country don't have legal work papers. Many illegal immigrants like Jose Luis are hired on busy street corner pickup sites like this one in LA South Bay.

JOSE LUIS: I came over (Speaking Spanish)

KAHN: Jose Luis didn't want to give his last name, but says he gets work almost every day as a painter or as a helper on a construction site. Like the majority of illegal immigrants in the U.S. today, Jose Luis is from Mexico and has been in the country for about 10 years. Roberto Suro of the Pew Hispanic Center says in the past, economic disruptions in Mexico fueled surges in illegal immigration. But he says lately, the illegal flow into the U.S. from Mexico is more about a booming U.S. economy than a failing Mexican one.

ROBERTO SURO: The single factor that seems to correlate most specifically to the flows from Mexico is the demand for work here in the U.S., and the pull factors seem to be more powerful now than the push factors.

KAHN: One major pull is the booming construction industry. According to the Pew study, 14 percent of construction workers are in the U.S. illegally.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish)

KAHN: Jume Jepes(ph) is supervising a crew of workers building four homes on a lot in South Los Angeles, says he thinks the number of illegal immigrants in construction is a lot higher. According to the Pew study, the majority of illegal workers are found in the lower-paying sectors of that industry. They're the roofers, insulation installers, and worksite helpers, mostly competing for work and wages among themselves. The Pew Center's Roberto Suro says very few illegal immigrants hold white-collar jobs. Most are staying for longer periods of time, and a lot have moved out of the typical immigrant receiving states like California, Texas and New York.

SURO: There is now substantial unauthorized populations in almost, throughout the country, but especially in places like the southeast and the inter-mountain west, where the economy has been growing very rapidly, populations have been growing rapidly, and the demand for this kind of labor has been increasing very rapidly as well.

KAHN: President Bush has called for a guest worker program that would give work visas to illegal immigrants already in the country, but the House rejected that program and instead passed the Tough Border Security Bill. A Senate committee is now debating a compromise. Meanwhile, Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform says illegal immigrants are flooding into the country, hoping to get a guest worker visa.

IRA MEHLMAN: Everybody knows that that's simply a euphemism for an amnesty on a time delay. Quite honestly, if you grant all these people temporary worker status, they are not going to go home at the end of six years. What is going to happen is, within those six years, somebody's going to come along and say we have to let them all stay now.

KAHN: The Senate Committee hopes to have an immigration reform bill ready by the end of this month.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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