Imagining a United States without Immigrant Labor

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From gardeners to dry wallers, there are millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S. workforce. Renee Montagne talks with Michael Fix of the Migration Policy Institute about what would happen if they all went away.


Of the illegal immigrants in the United States, more than seven million are believed to be part of the U.S. workforce. And to inform the debate this week over immigration reform, we asked our next guest an unusual question. What would happen if all the illegal workers suddenly went away?

Michael Fix has been thinking about that in his work at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. Good morning.

Mr. MICHAEL FIX (Vice President and Director of Studies, Migration Policy Institute): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, where I am in southern California, I think it's fair to say the place would just about shut down if all the workers disappeared who were illegal.

Mr. FIX: We know some sectors where the undocumented immigrants are highly concentrated. It's the agriculture and farming, cleaning, construction, food preparation, transportation, in particular, are the ones that leap out when you look at the statistics are drywall and poultry workers. I mean, you look at them nationwide, they, unauthorized make up over a quarter of those workers.

MONTAGNE: When this subject comes up, a lot of times you hear, well, if you have a housekeeper, or if you have someone who does your yard, or if you have someone who takes care of your child, you know, very personal connections to these workers, many of those people would go away.

Mr. FIX: As it turns out, unauthorized immigrants are very heavily concentrated in the area of personal services. And so, what I think we would see is that some families where all the parents worked would be forced, I think, to reduce the amount they work, or in some cases, they'd be forced to withdraw from the labor force. It's not just true of families where adults take care of kids, it's also true increasingly in this day and age of families where adults take care of their elderly parents.

MONTAGNE: Let's make it clear that we're not just talking about one ethnic group, Latinos being a large part of that population, but not the only part.

Mr. FIX: Right. Asians compose about 10 percent of the population. Mexicans are about 57 percent, and 24 percent come from Latin America.

MONTAGNE: So, those seven million illegal immigrants, if they were to disappear, that's one in every 20 workers in the U.S.

Mr. FIX: Right.

MONTAGNE: So how would that impact the broader economy?

Mr. FIX: We would lose some tax revenues. The undocumented pay social security taxes, they pay income taxes, they pay, don't forget they pay sales taxes, they pay car, highway, and gas taxes. And the social security taxes are significant.

According to the Social Security Administration, in 2003 alone, the undocumented appear to have paid about 50 billion to the Social Security Administration. That's 50 billion that they're probably not ever going to get back.

MONTAGNE: And for legal workers, what would the benefits be?

Mr. FIX: When you think about low-wage immigrant workers, you think that they're all unauthorized, but that's just not true. Sixty percent of low-wage immigrant workers are legal immigrants, and I, they work in a lot of the same niches as the undocumented workers work. And I think that if we were to have one of these magical days where the unauthorized disappeared, the immediate beneficiaries might be these other immigrants workers whose wages might go up somewhat.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. FIX: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Michael Fix is director of the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute. To sort out the politics and policies of the current immigration debate, go to

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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