Undocumented Workers and the D.C. Economy

The debate over illegal immigration has many employers on edge. Washington, D.C., offers one example of how revamping immigration law could affect local economies.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm John Ydstie.

(Soundbite of chanting demonstrators)

YDSTIE: Thousands of immigrants marched across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan today. It was the latest in a series of nationwide rallies in support of legalizing undocumented workers. While the congressional debate has brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants into the streets, it's also got many employers around the nation on edge.

NPR's Kathleen Schalch has our report.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:

It's a common sight in the Washington, D.C. suburbs these days, compact men with brown skin and sweatshirts tied around their waists hammer plywood onto the skeleton of a huge new house. Fredrico Rivera says he and all the other workers on this job site are from El Salvador. Rivera says there's a good reason for this.

Mr. FREDERICO RIVERA: (Spanish speaking)

SCHALCH: Much more money, he says. In El Salvador you make six dollars a day, whereas here you earn 12 or $13 and hour. Rivera's got a short-term visa, but he'd like to stay as long as he can. Under current law that wouldn't pose much of a problem for him or his employer, according to Jeff Passel, a demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. He says right now, one in every seven workers in the construction industry is an undocumented immigrant.

Mr. JEFFREY PASSEL (Demographer, Pew Hispanic Center): There are some construction jobs, drywall installers, masons, insulation installers, where they represent 25 to 30 percent, or even a little more, of all the workers in the country.

SCHALCH: Employers do check documents, he says, but that's no deterrent because fake documents are so easy to come by.

Mr. PASSEL: And the employer has no real incentive not to hire people who are willing to work and who have what appear to be valid documents.

SCHALCH: The immigration bill passed by the House of Representatives would change that, making undocumented workers felons and punishing anyone who knowingly employs them. Employers would have to screen all workers against government databases, and could face civil and criminal penalties, even prison time, if they don't.

Mr. JERRY HOWARD (Chief Executive Officer, National Association of Homebuilders): It puts a great burden on small business people to become an untrained, uncertified police force. And that's absolutely untenable to small business people.

SCHALCH: Jerry Howard, chief executive officer of the National Association of Homebuilders, has another worry, as well.

Mr. HOWARD: If you go on any construction site right now, and look around, the bulk of the laborers are foreign born immigrants. And believe me, some of these jobs in some areas of the country are pretty well paying jobs. We still are getting the people we get. It's not an issue of paying more. It's an issue of the supply of people.

SCHALCH: Howard says lawmakers should tread carefully and avoid doing anything that could cripple the homebuilding industry.

Mr. HOWARD: And remember, the housing construction industry is, depending on whose numbers you believe, between 15 and 18 percent of the GDP. So, I think, you're playing with a real, real dangerous game here.

SCHALCH: Proponents of tighter immigration controls contend that this really is about employers trying to save money.

Mr. JACK MARTIN (Federation for Immigration Reforms): The idea that there are jobs that Americans won't do is simply false.

SCHALCH: Jack Martin, of the Federation for Immigration Reforms, says in parts of the country where low paid, undocumented immigrants aren't available, construction and other jobs are filled by Americans.

Mr. MARTIN: But what has happened over time is wages in areas with large numbers of illegal aliens have fallen.

SCHALCH: Martin and others point to data indicating that the number of undocumented workers in the U.S. has doubled in the last seven years to more than 11 million.

Mr. MARTIN: And the only way that we really can disrupt that flow is to remove the job attraction that, in effect, advertises to people that if they can past our Border Patrol, that they will, in effect, be home free.

SCHALCH: Business groups insists that the economy now depends on these people. They're lobbying for a bill that would give undocumented workers a chance to come forward, apply for temporary work visas, and eventually become citizens. They say any program to screen out undocumented jobs applicants should be phased in very slowly. And they're hopeful that the Senate, now debating its own bill, will side with them.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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