FRANK STASIO, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.
Today Mexican President Vicente Fox met with Reverend Jesse Jackson to discuss the impact of the president's explosive comment last week that undocumented Mexican immigrants fill jobs that black Americans won't take. The statement provoked outrage among black leaders in the US and prompted a dialogue between President Fox and Jackson. But it also renewed the long-running debate about the role undocumented workers play in the American economy. Are there really jobs that Americans simply won't do? If wages were raised to attract legal workers, would the prices of goods and services also go up? And does the supply of cheap workers from over the border actually slow labor saving innovation and drain social services in this country?
In recent weeks, the debate over combatting illegal immigration has taken on new fire from self-appointed Minutemen across the border, patrolling the border in Arizona, to the passage of Real ID--the Real ID Act in Washington, DC. But without undocumented workers in the US, would our lives be affected and, if so, how? We'd like to hear from you. If you're someone who works with or employs undocumented workers, how are they part of your life and what would you do without them? Give us a call at (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Or our e-mail address, email@example.com.
First, though, let's take a look at some numbers. Just how many undocumented immigrants currently work in the US and what types of work do they do? Jeff Passel is a demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center and joins us in Studio 3A. Jeff, welcome to the show.
Mr. JEFF PASSEL (Pew Hispanic Center): All right. Thank you. Glad to be here.
STASIO: When we look at the overall work force in the US, what percentage are undocumented workers?
Mr. PASSEL: I've been looking at data from the Current Population Survey, which is the government's monthly labor force survey, and my own analysis tries to figure out how many undocumented workers are in it. I estimate there's about a little over 4 percent of the work force is undocumented. That amounts to 6 1/2 to 7 million actual undocumented workers in this country.
STASIO: And any way to figure out how much those workers contribute to GDP?
Mr. PASSEL: Well, it's sort of above my pay grade, or I'm not an economist and, you know, they tend to have lower than average incomes. They tend to have lower than average education. They're working in a wide range of industries and occupations, but actually, I haven't been able to figure out a good way to address that question.
STASIO: How wide a range? I guess when we think of undocumented workers, we think mostly of agriculture. Was that ever true and has it changed?
Mr. PASSEL: It certainly was true 50 years ago or so. Virtually none of these workers--maybe 200 to 300,000 that I'm talking about--are in agriculture. It's a very small share of the undocumented work force.
STASIO: Out of 6 million.
Mr. PASSEL: Out of the 6 1/2 million.
STASIO: Yeah, the 6 1/2 million immigrants.
Mr. PASSEL: They're in--and most of them--about half of them are--didn't complete high school. Some of them had much lower levels of education. But there's 10 to 15 percent who are college graduates, so they do kind of come in across the board. But they are concentrated in service occupations, in construction work, hotels, restaurants--kind of a wide range, but big concentrations mainly in construction and leisure and accommodations.
STASIO: So a fairly broad range of industries, and I guess there used to be a concentration, too, along the border and border states. Has that changed?
Mr. PASSEL: That's changed dramatically. The border--the big states are still the same big states--California, New York, Florida, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey--but increasingly, they've been spreading out. The numbers in the states other than those six have grown by a factor of 10 in the last 15 years. So there are now...
STASIO: And what's attracting them to the other states?
Mr. PASSEL: Jobs.
STASIO: Yeah, but what kind of jobs? What industries now?
Mr. PASSEL: Well, as I said, they're in a wide range, but the kind of thing that seems to draw them first is construction work; in some areas, meat packing, light manufacturing, food processing, hotels. Those are the big draws initially.
STASIO: Do we happen to know how many--if we're talking about undocumented workers, legally, they can't really be on the books. Do we know how many folks who may be undocumented and actually are drawing a paycheck and paying taxes and all of that?
Mr. PASSEL: We know that a significant number are. The estimates that I've used and that Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies have used are in the range of 55 to 60 percent seem to be paid on the books.
STASIO: So that would be 55 to 60 percent of that 6 1/2 million...
Mr. PASSEL: Right, right.
STASIO: ...who are actually on the books and paying taxes. Talking today about undocumented workers in this country, more than 6 1/2 million by some counts. The Pew Research Association, the Pew Hispanic Center; Jeff Passel is one of my guests today. We're taking your phone calls at (800) 989-TALK. And Drew is on the line from Wichita. Hello, Drew.
DREW (Caller): Hey. Good afternoon. Thank you. I've worked with folks who are undocumented workers. They have unique challenges. They are constantly having to look over their shoulder for a lot of things and just for the survival stuff. So in my opinion, from my experience and from my study, I think that any business who says that they can't survive without the use of undocumented workers, I think businesses that use undocumented workers are an exploitation of these folks, because we have a situation right now in history that's not unique. We had a situation back at the end of the Dark Ages where the lower class workers suddenly all disappeared. The Black Death came through, killed them all, and suddenly, cheap labor became a premium.
I think that as long as we continue to try and, you know, have this mentality that the low-class workers' value is not very valuable, number one, it's going to go ahead and have problems for them, and we're going to find ways to prop it up, like we're doing with the undocumented workers, and number two, we're just going to see a system that does like it did in the Middle Ages. It'll evolve and those businesses will die anyway.
STASIO: Well, you raise a couple of good questions there, Drew, and for that, I think I'd like to bring in two other guests. Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, and Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. And I want to welcome you both to the program.
Ms. TAMAR JACOBY (Manhattan Institute): Good to be here.
Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Center for Immigration Studies): Thank you, Frank.
STASIO: Mark, let me ask you about that. I mean, is this a question of undocumented workers keeping wages in this country--that was one of the suggestions Drew made--unnaturally low or unfairly low for other workers?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Well, it's not really a question of fairness. I mean, the market determines this. The question, though, is--excuse me--the question is what are the conditions of the market? In other words, is the American labor market, within which workers and employers kind of are in this tug-of-war over how much they get paid, or does the government put its thumb on the scales on the side of employers at the expense of workers? And that's what immigration has long represented. Mass immigration of low-skilled people is a way of undercutting the efforts to increase wages, to organize unions--all of those things that low-skilled workers try to do in order to try and even the scales with employers. And that's why, for instance, Samuel Gompers, the father of the American labor movement, was one of the most prominent proponents of limiting immigration, along with all major black leaders, until the 1960s, were proponents, very strong proponents of limiting immigration.
Ms. JACOBY: But, whoa, whoa, whoa. The world has changed an awful lot since the 1890s when Samuel Gompers road and spoke and the 1960s. In 1960, half of all American men dropped out of high school and went into the low-skilled labor force. Now about 10 percent of native-born American men drop out of high school. So we still have most of the jobs. Indeed, we have more jobs because of mechanization at the low end of the labor market, but we don't have those Americans to do them anymore.
STASIO: Well, Mark, what about that? I mean, that's the objection and the, I guess, defense we hear most often. Other people aren't doing these jobs.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: The whole story of economic development in human history is an increasing replacement of labor with capital, where people become--the work--a unit of work becomes more and more productive. Each person becomes more productive. And it's true that the educational attainment of Americans is higher now. There are relatively few high school graduates. But that's what we have a market economy for. Japan has adjusted to this in a very different way. Instead of importing low-skilled workers in huge numbers from overseas, they've moved toward increasing the productivity of their workers through automation and mechanization, and a lot of that happens already in our economy. It's a natural process. But what mass low-skilled immigration does is slow that, takes the incentives away for employers to make those investments in increasing productivity.
Ms. JACOBY: But the point is there are lots of jobs that you can't mechanize. Last time I had a mechanized busboy, it didn't work very well. Last time I had a mechanized health-care aide, she wasn't very helpful. And the other possibility is not just that they'll mechanize, but that the industries will move to another country where labor is cheaper, and they're going to do that before they're going to mechanize. American agriculture could move. We could stop growing things here and stop processing the food here. That would not be better for us.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: And, you know, this is exactly the kind of premodern economic mind-set, a sort of economic competition or mercantilist mind-set that's harmful. The fact is that it's good for economic development to happen overseas. It's been going on and on. And yet, our economy has grown and developed at the same time.
STASIO: I've got to stop you right there, because earlier you said--and this is the second time you've come around--you talk about the government having its thumb on the scale by, I guess, allowing immigration. Isn't the neoliberal argument that markets should decide, and...
Ms. JACOBY: Exactly.
STASIO: ...so if capital is free to move abroad, why isn't labor free to move abroad?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Because people aren't things. The fact is that human beings--the movement of human beings is fundamentally different from the movement of capital and goods and ideas, because when we import a person, we change our society. We add the...
STASIO: Well, the person exported themselves.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: We add...
STASIO: We didn't import the person.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: So we...
STASIO: Didn't the person make a choice as--so if I move my machine abroad and I move myself abroad, do I own my labor or don't I?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Sure, but you have to be permitted--in other words, we're talking about immigration into the United States. Either immigration is a government program, if it's legal immigration, or it's a conscious effort, conscious decision to permit illegal immigration...
Ms. JACOBY: No.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: ...or well, it's seen...
Ms. JACOBY: It's allowing the market to work or regulate--overregulating the market is what you're suggesting.
STASIO: We will continue our discussion about immigration and undocumented workers and inviting your phone calls at (800) 989-TALK, firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm Frank Stasio. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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STASIO: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington.
So what would the country look like? What would the economy be like without undocumented workers? That's the question this hour. We're looking at how illegal immigration affects everything from the price of produce at your grocery store to the cost of cleaning your house. You're invited to join the discussion. Would your life change without undocumented workers? You can give us a call anonymously at (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address, email@example.com.
My guests here in Studio 3A are Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. And Jeff Passel is senior research associate with the Pew Hispanic Center.
Jeff, we were talking about your survey a little earlier, and I wonder, who was doing some of the jobs that we now find undocumented workers doing before they came into this country?
Mr. PASSEL: Well, a wide range of people. Some of the jobs were quite different. For instance, undocumented workers are a big presence in the meat packing industry. That whole industry has changed over the last 30 years. The jobs were formerly done by skilled trained butchers, and now they're done by unskilled workers. They were formerly done in the cities and now they're done on the countryside. Janitorial services, a lot of African-Americans, a lot of whites did those. Construction work--I think construction workers came from all segments of life. Now about 20, 25 percent in a lot of the construction trades are undocumented.
STASIO: Do we know--has there always been--has there been sort of a constant flow of immigration into the United--we think of ourselves as the land of immigrants, but has it come in fits and starts or...
Mr. PASSEL: Yeah. It has not at all become constant. We went through a very long period from about 1924 till the 1960s where immigration was very low. We got almost no immigrants during the 1930s and '40s. And immigration began to pick up again in the late '60s, and it's rather steadily increased ever since.
STASIO: (800) 989-TALK is the number to call if you want to join our conversation. And let's see...
Ms. JACOBY: And the point is that the flow has increased because our labor needs have changed. We have become more educated. Our work force is shrinking. Americans want to work inside. Do you know anyone who's raising their kids to be a busboy? I don't.
STASIO: Well, bu...
Mr. KRIKORIAN: I've got to say--I mean, I can't let Tamar get away with that. The fact is immigration is a government program and an artifact of government policy, and a lot of these same processes happened during the '50s and '60s when immigration was still low. It's the state that has decided to permit massive immigration.
STASIO: Well, Mark, I have to say, don't you have to pass a law to restrict immigration? And if you didn't, there wouldn't be a law, so the intervention is passing the law to restrict, and otherwise, there is no law, so come on in?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Well, sure. In other words, if there were no--that would be open borders. That's what The Wall Street Journal wants. They have explicitly called for that over and over and over again. The question is does a nation state have the responsibility to control its borders, yes or no? And if the answer's yes, then the only question is how many people do we let in, and under what terms do we let them in? That's where the debate it; not whether everybody gets in without control, or nobody gets in, period.
Ms. JACOBY: No. There is a natural flow, and yes, we have to control it, but we're not creating the flow. We're ap...
Mr. KRIKORIAN: There is no natural flow.
Ms. JACOBY: There is, look all over the world.
STASIO: I'm going to get to the phone calls that we have. Paul is on the line from San Diego, and I want to hear from him. Hi, Paul.
PAUL (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. I just wanted to share with you sort of my view coming from the border region here in San Diego. Every day, I go to work, I go to school, and I see migrant workers lining up on the streets and waiting for work, and I know many of them, many of whom are good friends of mine. And I really want to say that these sort of attacks on migrant workers coming from all sectors of American society in the last several months, to me, are insulting. These people are in our country. They're doing awesome work. They're, you know, hard working, good laborers. They're good people. They're not getting into trouble. They're here just to make money, to support themselves and their families. And I think that we need to add that to the discussion, and we need to keep that respect and the dignity that these people deserve in the back of our heads. You know, many of them are already here and really deserve that respect from us; as I think without them, our economy would collapse here in Southern California and in many parts of America.
STASIO: All right. Paul, thank you for your call.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: You know, I've got to say that Will Rogers once said--he wasn't worried about what people didn't know. He was worried about what people did know, but just wasn't true. And the fact is that all unskilled immigration, immigrants and natives, illegal and legal, account for only about 4 percent of GDP. So restricting the flow of foreign workers and the resultant modest increase in the wages for the poor would have virtually no effect on the economy as a whole, and we've even modeled the effect specifically, for instance, on the retail price of fruits and vegetables, and the effect is less than 10 percent.
Ms. JACOBY: I disagree with the larger claim about GDP growth. No one has been--Jeff Passel just said no one yet has been able to successfully calculate what the effect on GDP...
Mr. KRIKORIAN: I wasn't talking about illegals.
Ms. JACOBY: Half...
Mr. KRIKORIAN: I was talking all unskilled workers.
Ms. JACOBY: No, but half--oh, unskilled workers--half of the new jobs filled in this economy in the last decade or so were filled by immigrants.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: They exist because immigrants were there to fill the jobs. In other words...
STASIO: Let me ask you both...
Ms. JACOBY: But the point is you can't grow a business...
STASIO: Let me ask...
Ms. JACOBY: ...without new workers, and our work force is shrinking.
STASIO: And what about the question of what does happen to the price, particularly of services that can't be mechanized, when the price goes up and the inexpensive labor isn't here?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Tamar's claim, first of all, is not exactly really true. There's very few things where productivity can't be increased hugely. For instance, there's VA hospitals now that are using these little robots to deliver medication from the central pharmacy to the nurse's station, rather than having somebody hoof it around. Japan makes extensive use of vending machines rather than have people stand behind counters reading the newspaper until a customer comes along. And if we're talking--what it really gets down to is who are going to be the nannies if we don't have large-scale unskilled immigration? And that means, therefore, that our immigration policy has to be premised on procuring cheap servants for the rich, and I don't think that's an appropriate function for the government.
Ms. JACOBY: That's just not true. They're in all kinds of businesses. Your model is as if we were in a little Italian mountain village that was deciding not to trade with the village next door. Sure, we could think of a machine that could do it instead of trading with the village next door. Economic history proves that it's more beneficial to trade with the village next door, and that's true of allowing the labor to come as well.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: The f...
Ms. JACOBY: Let's let business decide...
Mr. KRIKORIAN: The fact is...
Ms. JACOBY: ...whether it's better to mechanize.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: ...that advanced countries use their competitive advantage, which is capital and technology. Poor countries use their competitive advantage, which is low wages. That's why the farmers, the orange growers in Florida, for instance, after having tried to promote illegal immigration to keep their wages down in competition with Brazil, finally figured out that no matter how many illegal aliens you have, you still can't push wages down to the level they are in Brazil if you're in Florida, and so they've invested money and technology precisely in order to stay competitive.
Ms. JACOBY: The part of the picture that you're leaving out is that immigration grows the economic pie. For every agricultural worker that's working in an American field, you're creating jobs for more than three other people around him. You keep companies open. The crab pickers in Maryland--it's the Mexicans who are willing to stand out in the cold water and pick the crabs out of the water, but native-born white people are being the accountants and the middleman, and they own the restaurants where they sell the crabs, and white teen-agers do the waiting jobs in those restaurants. It's an integrated economy. Our...
STASIO: We are talking about undocumented workers today on TALK OF THE NATION and inviting your phone calls at (800) 989-8255. Joyce is in Buffalo. Hello, Joyce.
JOYCE (Caller): Hi. I have a quick question about the number of undocumented aliens working in the US compared to the number in the US work force. There was a report this morning on the global economics on NPR that pegged a number of something like a hundred and thirty million as being the work force of the US. Do you think that that's an accurate number, and if so, are the 7 million undocumented workers--maybe less than half a percent of the work force--worth all the energy that people exert in getting very upset about? I think this question of undocumented immigrants and immigration is a very old question, and it's repeated over and over again in history, but it would be interesting to know what the numbers are.
STASIO: All right. Well, let's put the question to Jeff Passel, and thank you for your call, Joyce. Jeff Passel at the Pew Center.
Mr. PASSEL: Yes. Well, the US work force is around a hundred forty-five million and about 6 1/2 to 7 million of them are undocumented. It's about a little over 4 percent. They are more common in certain parts of the country. In Arizona, for instance, they're about--maybe about 10 percent of the work force; California about 8. In some occupations, they're as much as 25 percent. In some broad industry groups, they're about one out of seven workers. So...
STASIO: Where do they make up 25 percent?
Mr. PASSEL: In a lot of the construction trades and meat packing.
STASIO: Well, so let me put this question then to Mark and Tamar. Are we making too much of this, Mark?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: No, we're clearly not making too much of it. Now it depends, though, how you look at it. If you look at the entire economy, then, in fact, the effect isn't huge when you look at the net effect, because the National Research Council, for instance, looked at the net economic effect from pushing down the wages of poor people because of immigration, and they found an estimated benefit of 1 to $10 billion a year. This isn't a multitrillion-dollar economy, so it really wasn't all that big. What that masks, though, is a transfer effect, a transfer of wealth from the poor to the better off, where the low-skilled American workers suffer a significant reduction in their wages, and that benefit, which is taken out of their hide, is spread thin across the other 90 percent of the population. And so you've got to ask--it's a moral question: Is it appropriate to beggar the poor to increase the wages of everyone else by a tiny amount?
Ms. JACOBY: I think Mark exaggerates that point about beggaring the poor. In fact, the wage effects are slight. There are some wage effects, but they're slight. And it is mostly other high school dropouts and other less-recent immigrants, but the wage effects are small. We're not beggaring the poor in the way Mark suggests.
But the reason it's a big deal--there are two reasons. One is because of the way they help grow the economy. They fill the new jobs. You can't create a business without new workers. But the thing that is bothering the American public is the illegality. They don't like--it's one thing to say we're bringing in new workers, we're bringing in foreigners. But bringing guaranteed illegality to your workplace and your community? That bothers people, and rightly so. But the answer is not to cut off our nose to spite our face and get rid of the workers; the answer is to allow the workers a legal way to come.
STASIO: I want to put a question to Jeff Passel. It's speculation based on your numbers, so I understand you may not be prepared to answer it. But is there any way to tell what would happen if the regulations, if the laws against immigration weren't in place? We have six million people now or...
Mr. PASSEL: Oh, yeah...
STASIO: ...six to eight million undocumented. What would the number be without it? Any way to know?
Mr. PASSEL: It's a little speculative. My sense from--well, let me back up--about...
STASIO: We do a lot of that on this show. So you can speculate...
Mr. PASSEL: About 60 percent of the unauthorized migration is from Mexico.
Mr. PASSEL: My sense from the studies in Mexico and in the US is that virtually everybody from Mexico who wants to come to the US gets here, so that we're really not stopping people from coming from Mexico. So in effect, opening the Mexican border wouldn't make much difference. It's the rest of the world that--a lot of people don't have a way to get here, and we might see big increases from other parts of the world if we just opened up the borders.
STASIO: We are talking about the impact of undocumented workers on our economy and what it might be like if they weren't here at all. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan.
Jeff Passel is one of my guests, senior research associate at Pew Hispanic Center, Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. And we're taking your calls at (800) 989-8255.
So, Mark, would we not see much of an increase--are these laws really doing much?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: We'd seen an enormous increase. Now it wouldn't happen overnight because it takes a while for migration momentum to develop. In fact, immigration's grown pretty steadily for the past 20, 25 years. And if we were to sort of take the lid off, immigration would grow much more rapidly than it is today.
And let's look at one example where we do have open borders; that is Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has sent one-quarter of its population to the United States, and it's only that low because we have massive transfers of welfare as well as tax benefits for local employers to keep people from leaving Puerto Rico. So if we use that as a yardstick and say 25 percent of Mexico's population were to come here, that's an extra 25 million people on top of the 10 million immigrants from Mexico who are already here, not to mention everyplace else in Latin America or East Asia who already has links here.
Ms. JACOBY: But nobody's proposing that we just open the borders. No one in an age of terrorism, no one thinks that's a good idea. And nobody who thinks that the American political community matters thinks that's a good idea. You need a political community to have rights. You need a political community to have a culture. We all want that. No one's serious...
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Except the president.
Ms. JACOBY: ...in this debate about open borders.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Except the president.
STASIO: Let's go to San Francisco. Ed is on the line. Hello, Ed.
ED (Caller): Hello. I am doing the health and safety for a job where there's asbestos and other hazardous materials being removed. With a lot of these companies, the majority--at least in this area, the majority of the workers are Mexican nationals. And over the years--late '80s--the entry was $20 an hour. Now it's maybe $10, $12 an hour. And a lot of the Mexican nationals have stepped in to fill these jobs. I don't know if it's the companies that want more work for less money, if it is the companies that are undercutting each other or if it is an anemic union that just marched these wages backwards. But at this specific site where I'm working right now, a public housing site, the majority of the population here is black, quite a bit of unemployment and quite a few of the workers are from Mexico.
And yesterday, the conversation was about Vicente Fox's comments. And amongst the workers, there's general agreement with what he said specifically, however, they all did agree that he could have phrased it different, that it could've been stated a lot more tactfully.
STASIO: Thank you for your call, Ed.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Well, the fact is that--I mean, let's look at this issue of black American workers vs. immigrant workers. The whole history of immigration has been, in a way, sort of story of immigrants climbing over the blacks who are already here into the middle class, and this is exactly what we're seeing today with immigration from Latin America and Asia, because the immigrants really aren't that different from immigrants from Europe. The immigration is the same; it's our own country that's changed, if there's been changes.
Now you know, it would be facile to say that if immigration were reduced, our underclass would disappear and the ghettos would all bloom. The fact is, though, that the incentives for incorporating marginalized elements of our economy into the mainstream simply don't exist when we have cheap, docile, foreign labor to do the work.
Ms. JACOBY: Well, I think Mark said it. Our underclass would not disappear even if we cut off immigration. The point is that--I mean, one of the points is that if Mexicans were allowed to come here legally, they could bargain for wages in a very different way than they do now. As is, they're afraid of standing up to their employers and bargaining for wages, and that means in some cases, they do work for less than similarly qualified Americans. If they could bargain, the market wages would even out.
STASIO: I want to thank you all for joining us. Wish we had more time. Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Mark Krikorian is executive director at the Center of Immigration Studies and Jeff Passel, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center.
We're going to take a short break, and then 25 years ago today, Mt. St. Helens blew her top, turned miles of Washington woods into a Pompeii of tree trunks and abandoned cabins. Were you affected that day? Have a story to tell us? Give us a call at (800) 989-8255.
I'm Frank Stasio. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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