The Slippery Process of Counting Immigrant Jobs

Many economists disagree with rhetorical claims that illegal immigrants are taking American jobs. The economists consider the negative impact on American wages overall is zero — and on low-end wages, less than 5 percent. But in some industries, the impact is greater.

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Most economists agree that illegal immigration does not hurt the vast majority of U.S. workers. It's only when you zero in and look at very low-skill or very high-skill workers, that there's an impact. NPR's Chris Arnold reports on some industries where the effect of illegal immigration is the greatest.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

A crew of illegal workers is using saws and nail guns to install a wood floor in a suburb outside Boston. In recent years, a lot of Brazilians have been illegally streaming into the country and getting into the wood floor installation and sanding business.

(Soundbite of construction sounds)

IGOR (Brazilian Immigrant): My name is Igor. I'm from Brazil, and I'm here in America about two years and a half.

ARNOLD: 24-year-old Igor followed his father here, as did his mother and two brothers. He says they're all here illegally. Igor hasn't seen his wife and young son, who are still back in Brazil, for years, but he says the $10 to $12 an hour he makes here is big money for him to send home.

(Soundbite of construction sounds)

ARNOLD: A mile away, over in a Home Depot parking lot, 47-year-old Joe Randolph is taking a lunch break in his work van, which is a bit beat up from years of having power sanders and other tools clanking around in it. Randolph's been in this business for 30 years, and he's well aware of all the Brazilian and South Asian immigrants who've gotten into it too, because he sees them driving around in their vans.

Mr. JOE RANDOLPH (Contractor): You know, when you're driving down, up and down the highway, and you've had a look at these guys next to you, they all, they start screaming and...

ARNOLD: Randolph says the immigrants taunt him in Portuguese or Vietnamese but he understands what they're saying when they give him the finger out of their truck window.

Mr. RANDOLPH: They give you the bird all the time, you know what I mean? Everybody knows what the bird is. (LAUGH)

ARNOLD: Randolph laughs but he says it's not funny when he pulls up to a house to bid on a job and sees a Brazilian or Vietnamese guy's truck at the same house.

Mr. RANDOLPH: You want to do an estimate and one guy's already there giving an estimate, and then you come in to do an estimate. I'll just turn around and walk away. I don't want to do the job.

ARNOLD: Well Randolph says he walks away because odds are he won't get the job. Randolph charges a buck twenty-five to a $1.50 a square foot to sand and refinish a floor. He says recent immigrants will do the work for 80 cents a square foot, undercutting him by almost half.

Mr. RANDOLPH: When they're coming to this country and they're not here you know legally, they're just taking jobs from our children, from us. It's pretty bad you know.

ARNOLD: But how much do illegals really hurt you as workers? Economists say, on average, not very much. They say immigrants, illegal and legal together, push down wages for the lowest skilled workers by less than five percent. And for most higher wageworkers, there's no negative impact at all. In part, that's because all this cheap labor stimulates more business. For example, if a lot of immigrants get into house cleaning or gardening or nannying and lower the price of those services, a lot more people will hire house cleaners, gardeners and nannies, or in this case, floor sanders.

Mr. ANDREW CHASON(ph) (Owner, Father and Son Floor Craft Store): There is more work all around to go around.

ARNOLD: Andrew Chason owns the Father and Son Floor Craft Store. He contracts out jobs to both American and immigrant work crews all over Boston.

Mr. CHASON: There's not just one kind of customer. There's plenty of people that have, for instance, rental property that don't need to have a real high quality job and they're mostly concerned with the price.

ARNOLD: So Chason says more landlords will redo their floors if they can get a deal. But he says he sees plenty of higher end work for the often more skilled American workers. Some in the floor sanding business say there are just too many immigrants getting into this one line of work.

(Soundbite of floor sander)

ARNOLD: Inside a $2 million home in a wealthy suburb, Gerard O'Connor and his three or four workers, including his two sons, are sanding and refinishing the house's old oak floors.

Mr. GERARD O'CONNOR (Floor Sander): The bag is getting full, like, and there's only so much you can take.

ARNOLD: O'Connor's not talking about his sawdust bag, he's talking about illegal Brazilian workers. He says there's some higher end work like this where he's not directly competing with immigrants, but still about half his jobs come from people who want the best price. Back in the late eighties, the Vietnamese were flooding the labor market and charging half the going rate.

Mr. O'CONNOR: It almost put me out of business. There was no way of competing with that.

ARNOLD: O'Connor says back then he had to lay off all his workers and start over. Now he's worried about the housing market cooling off and all the new Brazilian immigrants. He says already his phone is ringing half as often, and he's had to cut his prices by 10 percent. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

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Getting a Handle on 'Fuzzy' Immigration Numbers

Efforts to estimate the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States can be tricky. To begin with, any estimate is obviously a snapshot in time. The current estimated range is between 8 million and 20 million people, though almost all reputable sources believe the 8 million mark was surpassed several years ago. The number most commonly cited is between 11 million and 12 million.

That estimate is derived by using what's called the statistical "residual method. Here's how it works:

1 — Take the number of legal immigrants: about 24-25 million. They are relatively easy to track because they have documents such as green cards.

2 — Take the total number of foreign-born persons in the United States: about 35-36-million. That number includes legal immigrants, but it also accounts for other immigrants, as statistically sampled in periodic U.S. Census Bureau surveys (those are interviews done to update the 10-year Census).

3 — Subtract the legal immigrants from the total number of foreign-born immigrants. Illegal immigrants equal roughly 11 million to 12 million.

Demographer Jeff Passell at the Pew Hispanic Center says illegal immigrants are surprisingly forthcoming when interviewed anonymously. Plus, the surveys use statistically valid sampling methods.

An Accurate Picture?

Other sources, such as investigative journalist Donald Barlett, believe the number is an underestimate, because illegal immigrants are wary of authorities and tough to track down.

Barlett cites a report by the investment firm Bear Stearns that estimates as many as 20 million illegal immigrants as of last fall. That report uses micro-economic trends such as housing starts, school population forecasts, and soaring remittances—the amount of money sent back specifically to Mexico.

What Border Patrol Apprehensions Tell Us

The federal government cites the number of Border Patrol apprehensions to gauge the success of current border-enforcement strategy. Here's how the numbers are derived:

When illegal immigrants are caught, they are taken to a processing center, where they are photographed and fingerprinted. Those with criminal records and those who admit they are not from Mexico are detained. The "OTMs" (other than Mexicans) are detained until the can be returned, usually via airplane, to their home country.

Many illegal immigrants are released on their own recognizance, pending a court date. They often disappear into cities. However, the overwhelming majority of those apprehended are Mexican; they are put on a bus and driven to a port of entry on the Mexican border and released to walk a few feet back into Mexico.

Since many of these illegal immigrants come from the deep interior of Mexico, once they are dropped off at the border, they will often try again to enter the United States without authorization. (Some are flown back to Mexico City, but that's a voluntary program.) Immigrants I've interviewed often tell me they had to try two, three, four times or more to enter the U.S. — and eventually they made it in.

Double Counting?

The problem is, each time an illegal immigrant is caught, the Border Patrol counts that person as an apprehension. Same person, three apprehensions — sometimes on the same day. Even the Border Patrol says three people enter the United States illegally for every one person who is caught trying to do so.

Critics such as Douglas Massey, a Princeton University sociologist and expert on Mexican migration, say the apprehension figure is misleading.

"There is virtually nothing one can infer about the volume of illegal migration from the number of apprehensions," Massey told the Arizona Daily Star.

Because those apprehended are photographed and fingerprinted, it seems likely the federal government has statistics — or could compile them — on the number of distinct individuals it catches. But the government has not released those figures for several years. Meanwhile, a number of media outlets continue to use "apprehensions" as interchangeable with "permanently removed."

Immigration vs. Migration

Historically, people have migrated from Mexico illegally for seasonal work, especially in agriculture. No agency tracks those who migrate illegally, but they are not "immigrants" because they do not stay in the United States. Instead, these migrants moved back and forth across the border.

But border security has increased both the risks and the cost of that circular migration. As a result, there is anecdotal evidence that more people are staying in the United States illegally and even sending for their families. But, again, no numbers yet exist that would accurately prove or disprove that theory.

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