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For decades people from Mexico and Central America found a way into this country, some legally but many more illegally. In recent years there’s been a dramatic shift: the numbers of legal immigrants have risen, but illegal immigration rates have dropped precipitously. Diminished job prospects here in the U.S., a somewhat improved economic picture in Mexico, and the many risks associated with illegal border crossings may explain the shift, at least in part. Join us for a discussion of what’s behind the declining numbers of illegal immigrants in to this country from Mexico and Central America and political and economic implications
- Steven Camarota director of research, Center for Immigration Studies.
- Frank Sharry founder and executive director of America's Voice, former executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
- Francisco Gonzalez the Riordan Roett Chair in Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins' graduate school, SAIS, in Washington D.C.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The tide of illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America may have turned. In recent years, the number of people entering this country illegally has fallen dramatically with political and economic implications for all countries involved. Joining me to talk about why far fewer illegal immigrants are coming to this country, Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, Frank Sharry of America's Voice.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd joining us by phone and by Skype from Oxford, England, Francisco Gonzalez, he's associate professor of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And, of course, you can join us as well. Join us by phone, send us an email, join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And good morning to all of you.
MR. STEVEN CAMAROTAGood morning, Diane.
MR. FRANK SHARRYGood morning.
PROF. FRANCISCO GONZALEZGood morning.
REHMGood to have you with us. Steve, I'm going to start with you. Give us the legal and illegal immigration picture at this point.
CAMAROTAWell, earlier in this decade, we think about 500,000 people were settling in the United States each year from Mexico with some fluctuation. But the latest data indicate that it's more like 250,000 now, so maybe half of that. And a lot of that decline has occurred in the illegal portion. Now, these are rough numbers, and we don't have exact figures on everything. But we do think that immigration from Mexico in the last three or four years is down quite a bit from what it was.
REHMSo how accurate do you think those figures really are?
CAMAROTAYeah, well, we do get some confirmation of that from data in Mexico, so we feel good about that. Both the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey show some of the same things. They're two different big surveys we do in the United States, so that gives us some confidence. And I think the numbers are real. But we have to remember that some of our data in Mexico may not be representative of Mexico. And let me just give you one complicating factor.
CAMAROTALet's say we think that the United States has been enforcing its laws more in the United States in the last few years than it had been. That could reduce the response rates on the data that the Census Bureau collects, creating the illusion of a drop that wouldn't really be there. I do not think that's what's happening, but it is a possibility.
REHMAnd what about Central America?
CAMAROTANow, Central America doesn't look quite the same way. For example, the Department of Homeland Security's estimates for the size of the illegal population have generally ticked up during the last few years from the primary illegal-sending countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
REHMSteven Camarota, he is with the Center for Immigration Studies. Turning to you, Frank Sharry, you say most people have misconceptions about illegal immigration, especially from Mexico.
SHARRYWell, if you listen to our political discourse, particularly coming from places like Arizona and from Texas, Gov. Jan Brewer, for example, or Sen. John McCain, they talk about all the time how the border is out of control, that border violence in -- that violence in Mexico related to the drug war is spilling into the United States and that we can't do anything to deal with the 11 million unauthorized or undocumented immigrants in the United States until we secure the border.
SHARRYWhat these recent findings show is that that's complete nonsense, is that what's happening is that the border has never been safer, that the border cities based on FBI data has -- have never been safer, that illegal immigration is a net-zero at a, essentially, a 60-year low, and that to us, it suggests that it's really time to stop the sort of soundbite-driven debate about we can't do anything to deal with the undocumented population in the United States until we secure the border.
SHARRYIn fact, now is the time to say, wait a minute. What do we do about 11 million people in the United States, most of whom live in families, most of whom have been here for more than a decade? Are we going to expel them the way some Republicans want? Or are we going to include them as many Democrats want?
REHMSo just to repeat, you're saying the borders have never been safer?
SHARRYCorrect. There's more border patrol than ever. There's more technology and infrastructure. There's more cooperation with Mexico. I know this is not generally accepted, but that's what, you know, yesterday's front page New York Times' article really heralded, is, wow, something big is happening, something remarkable.
SHARRYNet-zero. Doug Massey, an expert on border crossing, thinks that it's actually a negative that there's fewer people coming than are leaving, and that, for us, this really presents a great opportunity to stop the soundbites in the politics and say, all right, what is America going to do about 11 million people who live in our communities and don't have papers?
REHMFrank Sharry, he's founder and executive director of America's Voice and former executive director of the National Immigration Forum. And turning to you, Francisco Gonzalez, what is it that's happening in the economy here in this country that you feel may be contributing to this drop in illegal immigration?
GONZALEZRight. The factors that drive Mexican-Central American migration to the United States, Diane, are on the one hand the push factor, Mexico and Central American people wanting to go to areas where there's more economic opportunities, and the pull factors, which are those economic opportunities in the United States.
GONZALEZWhat, you know, the latest news, the latest data suggest is that the U.S. economic slowdown since 2008, '09, coupled with the immigrant crackdown -- Frank Sharry mentioned Arizona, Alabama -- those laws have created, you know, an important deterrent if you want to weaken that push factor.
GONZALEZAnd on the other hand, when you look at Mexico in particular, sociologists, economists are telling us that Mexico has undergone an important demographic shift, whereas a Mexican woman back in 1970, her average bearing a child was 6.8, close to seven, today it's two, you know, at par with the United States, countries in Western Europe.
GONZALEZThere's also the issue of rising border crime. What Frank was saying about the border being really secure, I'd say, you know, that's probably the case on the American side. On the Mexican side, the known smuggling roots have been taken over by the drug cartels. And there have been three or four really dramatic incidents whereby, you know, big groups, 50, 60, 70 people -- Mexicans, Central Americans, South Americans -- have been kidnapped by these gangs.
GONZALEZThey've, you know, tried to get them ransoms. And when they weren't able to do this, they basically executed these big groups of people -- discovery of mass graves, a big deterrent regarding the rising border crime. The last one is expanding economic and education opportunities in Mexico. I think some people have pushed these factors a bit more than what they really are. From my perspective, the key issue is that Mexico has had very low rates of inflation for the last 10, 13 years.
GONZALEZAnd with low rates of inflation, even though the economy has performed, you know, rather not as good as we would hope, we would like to be like Brazil, growing at 5, 6, 7 percent. Mexico grows at 2, 3 percent. But low inflation has allowed for a small but consistent rise in real income. There's market for consumer credit. And so there are more opportunities, particularly for young people in Mexico, today than 10, 15 years ago.
REHMFrancisco Gonzalez, he's at the Johns Hopkins graduate school here in Washington, D.C. He's on with us by phone and by Skype from Oxford, England. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Frank Sharry, what about the overall employment picture here, for those 11 million you talked about who are already here either legally or illegally?
SHARRYWell, there's some 38 million immigrants in the United States. But almost a third of them are here without papers. It just shows how dysfunctional our immigration system is. Of that 11 million, it's estimated that about 7 million are in the workforce. Now, about two-thirds of them are what you might call payroll workers, where they have used either fake documents or somebody else's real document, as usually the case, and they pay Social Security taxes, FICA, et cetera. And they're employed as payroll workers.
SHARRYAbout a third are in the cash economy or the underground economy. So, now, the big debate coming up in this Congress is going to be what about the employment situation of those 7 million people. Lamar Smith, the head of the House Judiciary Committee, Republican, he has a bill that is -- wants to make mandatory something called E-Verify, the system by which right now it's voluntary for employers to use a federal database to check to see whether workers are legal or not.
SHARRYMany of us oppose that because we actually think that in the absence of providing a path to legal status for non-criminal work -- hardworking, undocumented immigrants, you're going to force those two-thirds of the workers that are on the payroll, and you're going to drive them into the underground cash economy.
SHARRYAnd so, while proponents say it'll free up jobs and send people home, we think what it'll do is drive some of those workers out of the legal workforce into the underground cash economy. In a way, that'll lead to more exploitation, lower tax compliance and undercutting decent employers. So it's a -- it's going to be a big debate. What do you do about 7 million in the United States who are integrated into our workforce but don't have papers?
REHMFrank Sharry, he's founder and executive director of America's Voice, former executive director of the National Immigration Forum. We'll take a short break now and be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the reduction in illegal immigration, both from Mexico, Central America, coming into the United States -- really, a sharp drop and a rise in legal immigration into this country. Three people are with me. Steven Camarota, he is director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies. Also here in the studio, Frank Sharry, he's founder and executive director of America's Voice.
REHMOn the line with us from London, Francisco Gonzalez, he is at the Johns Hopkins graduate school of studies here in Washington, D.C. He -- pardon me. He joins us from London, England. Here is an email from Charles in Fort Lauderdale who says, "I find it hard to believe that with all the violence in Mexico that the U.S.A. is somehow immune to border crime. We've had violence committed here in South Florida by illegal immigrants, and we're not even close to the border."
REHMWhat do you say to that, Frank Sharry? It sounds to me as though that may be a different kind of situation.
SHARRYWell, look, I mean, there is this widespread perception that has been fueled by politicians, saying that there's chaos in Mexico, and it's now in America. I mean, Gov. Brewer, the Republican governor of Arizona, infamously claimed that there were beheadings happening in Arizona. And then, finally, reporters dogged her until she had to finally admit, no, there's no evidence of anything like that.
SHARRYI mean, John McCain infamously, recently blamed a fire, widespread wildfire in Northern Arizona, on people who are crossing the border. I mean, it's gotten to be ridiculous. Are there people here illegally that commit crimes? Yes. Do they commit crimes at a higher rate than those born here? No.
GONZALEZIf I may add to Frank's comment, I'd say that, you know, for example, you look simply at the great, great disparity between, say, the most violent city in Mexico, Ciudad Juarez, which has, you know, violence and homicide rates close to those of some of the more dysfunctional Central American countries -- Guatemala, El Salvador -- and you just go past the Rio Grande to El Paso. And El Paso is one of the five safest cities in the United States.
GONZALEZI think there is a misperception. Frank is totally right in asserting the fact that there's plenty to be won politically by raising these issues and, you know, talking about them. The reality is that the drug cartels, their operators in the United States want anything and everything. But the last thing they want is to call attention on authority because their main issue is to transport and distribute their produce.
GONZALEZGiven that police enforcement in the U.S. is effective, is on top, unlike Mexico's, the psychology of a drug gang is very different. So, in fact, they want, more often than not, to keep a low profile, to keep their business operations flowing. So I'm afraid I disagree with that previous comment.
CAMAROTAI think it's a very mixed picture at the border. If you talk to people down there, they'll tell you that there are whole sections of the border that are no go. They're all tops of mountains you don't go near. There are all times of day you don't go out. And so, yeah, they're not getting victimized, but they feel under siege and rightly so. So this has -- this issue is very much tied, as we've heard, to the drug issue, not as much the illegal immigration issue.
CAMAROTAWhat so far has happened is that the cartels have not had turf wars in the United States. They generally kill each other in Mexico. But, given the fact that the border is porous, that, you know, obviously, we have 500,000 apprehensions, which is down from where it was, but still an enormous number of people coming in, we still have billions of dollars of drugs seized and millions of dollars making it through.
CAMAROTAGiven the fact that the border is so porous, there are these, you know, trafficking lanes that they might come into dispute for. The concern is that it's a temporary thing. It's sort of a lull before the storm, that that violence could easily spill over in the United States. And it could, but I think some people have exaggerated it. I certainly wouldn't argue that the U.S. side of the border is chaos. I certainly wouldn't say that. I don't think the evidence supports that. People on the U.S. side are very fearful, however.
REHMBut you heard Frank Sharry say earlier that the border is as secure as it has ever been, and the number of illegals getting across these borders has dropped radically in number. Would you disagree with that?
CAMAROTAWell, in terms of the illegal immigration picture, we do think that perhaps some research by DHS and others suggest that about 40 percent of all illegal immigrants in the United States come in on temporary visas and then don't go home. So illegal immigration and border crossing are not exactly the same thing. There are other sea smuggling routes. So do we think the number of apprehensions is down on the border? Absolutely.
CAMAROTADo we think parts of the border are very secure? Parts of the border remain wide open. That's what the cartels are using. And we're still catching hundreds of thousands of people sneaking into our country illegally. So we don't want to paint a picture that this is something we have control over. But it is, I think, in some important respects, better than the horrific situation that has existed in the past.
SHARRYWell, might I suggest that the reason that Steve and his allies don't want to say that the border is safer than ever -- look, secure is a very contested word when it comes to border security. Are we talking Berlin Wall secure? Of course not. But even the Berlin Wall had people who got over it and through it. So if we're talking about safer than ever, I think it's indisputable. Are there more border agents than ever? Yes.
SHARRYAre the number of illegal crossers down dramatically? Yes. So -- but, see, the problem is, is that the debate in this country is -- the real spirited debate is what do you do about the 11 million here illegally? And if conservatives had to admit that the border is safer than ever, then we -- they'd have to confront that. But, right now, there's a very convenient out. We can't talk about that until the border is secure.
SHARRYThey keep moving the goalpost. They keep saying it's not safe enough. They keep saying that border violence is about to spill over as a political excuse to refrain from dealing with that issue.
REHMFrancisco Gonzalez, what about the overall employment rate for illegals here in this country? How fearful are they of somehow being apprehended?
GONZALEZI think this is one of the main driving factors which has contributed to fewer people deciding to do a first crossing. Remember that the way these flows are organized are through social networks -- social networks of families, extended families, villages. And so it's by word of mouth that the messages are transmitted during periods of bonanza, the U.S. growing at high rates, second half of the 1990s.
GONZALEZYou know, word of mouth was, go to el Norte. Go to the north. There's great opportunity there. Since the '08, '09 recession, but particularly since the toughening up of migration enforcement -- not at the federal level so much as at the local level, the Arizona law-- the people, the individuals on the U.S. side, you know, are now transmitting the opposite message through the network and are advising all those youngsters, whose parents, whose uncles, whose godfathers would have, by and large, gone to the U.S. in search of a future, they are now advising them against them.
GONZALEZSo it's a tougher enforcement, particularly at the local level. The Arizona law has really created a lot of fear among Mexicans planning to migrate. And coupled with that, just reiterating the very important role, a very dramatic role, which the takeover by the drug cartels of the smuggling routes has produced, definitely, the costs for those who want to go to the U.S. to work have definitely been raised significantly on a legal basis, on the basis of, you know, basic physical security and on the basis of, well, what's on the other side.
GONZALEZIs there great availability of jobs at the moment? Well, not really. So the costs have gone up on several fronts.
CAMAROTAWell, I think that we should -- one of the groups that doesn't get talked about enough here, Frank, has real empathy for the illegal immigrants in our country. And I think that's to its credit. And I think that we should think about the illegal immigrants. But where he doesn't seem to have as much empathy is, say, the 28 million Americans who have no education beyond high school. These are American citizens of working age who don't have a job right now.
CAMAROTAUnemployment for people who don't have a high school education or have only a high school education and are young is between 20 and 30 percent, depending on how you calculate it.
REHMOkay. But let me ask you right then and there, with fewer and fewer immigrants crossing at the border, aren't there jobs available?
CAMAROTAWell, remember, job market has shrunk dramatically at the bottom end. What we need to have is a situation where the economy finally recovers and we keep the illegals out. Then, hopefully, we'll see people drawn in, we'll see wages rise. Remember, wages and benefits for the less educated in the United States, as immigration is going up, they fall. And they have really taken it on the chin. What we have to have is an expanding economy and less immigration.
CAMAROTAAnd then we can hopefully see a real improvement in the lives of the people at the bottom. People like Frank argue -- look, the only problem with letting millions of people into the country this way at the bottom end of the labor market is, well, that they're illegal, and that way they get exploited. But it's ignoring basic economics.
CAMAROTAYou increase dramatically the supply of workers in the United States by 7 million -- and they're heavily concentrated at the bottom end -- you are going to lower wages and benefits precisely at the part of the economy where workers are already in the worst state.
REHMWhat I'm asking -- and maybe it's a question nobody can answer -- but what about those jobs not being taken by the so-called illegals? Are there people here in this country willing to take those jobs, Frank?
SHARRYWell, we've had a real time experiment recently. The state of Georgia passed a mandatory E-Verify law just a few months ago. Nathan Deal, Republican, former member of Congress, ran, we're going to have a tougher law than Arizona. They passed it despite opposition from the agricultural industry in Georgia. Now, they're feeling the effects. What's happening? In agriculture in Georgia, there are crops rotting on the vine.
REHMThat's what I'm trying to get to.
SHARRYVidalia onions, berries, I mean, very dramatic reports, the estimates of more than 110,000 shortage of workers, millions of dollars in crops not being picked. The governor, responding to the crisis, said, well, we're going to make sure that ex-convicts who are unemployed go out to the fields and work there. They can make them start the job, but they can't make them stay. What's happened is quite predictable. Many of them walk off the job within a matter of hours, and few stay more than a day or two.
REHMFrank Sharry. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Francisco, I know you want to comment.
GONZALEZThank you. Just to also get into this part of the debate, I think when people talk about Mexican, Central Americans taking away jobs from -- on skilled American laborers, pushing down their wages, I think that just looks at one side of the economic equation. That just looks at the side of production. In fact, if you look at the other side, the side of consumption, the work of Mexican and Central American immigrants has helped to keep general prices of the economy down.
GONZALEZSo, you know, low inflation in the U.S. for the last 10, 15 years. And this means more consumption for both unskilled as well as skilled American workers. On the other hand, Hispanics, you know, a growing proportion of the American population, are also driving growth. These immigrants, they buy food, they buy clothes, cars. They pay rent, and all these activities create jobs. I think it's a fallacy to think that there is a fixed number of jobs over which an economy is competing.
REHMAll right. We have many callers waiting. Going to open the phones now. First to Charlotte, N.C. and to Diego. You're on the air.
REHMYes. You're on the air, sir. Go right ahead.
DIEGOOkay. Hi. I am actually from Brazil. I came, actually, myself seven years ago with a working visa. And first I wanted to say that staying legal in America is a very, very hard process and very expensive as well. You need to be hiring lawyers to be going with you to get all the documents you need. But in the other side, I would like also to say what I've seen different since I arrived here about seven years ago, when I first arrived, there was jobs everywhere.
DIEGOEverywhere you would go around, you'd see now-hiring signs, you know, including, you know, low jobs such as gas stations, restaurants. And those are the jobs that most Americans would not want to work at that time. And nowadays, most Americans are working in jobs they would not work seven years ago. And I have seen a lot of people, a lot of Brazilians, just going back home. They come in, they spend a lot of money to be here coming illegally, and they get here. They have no jobs, so they just leave.
DIEGOAnd, like the guests said, you know, every day, less and less people are coming to the country because they know they're not going to find jobs. They're not going to find, you know, opportunities that -- like it was before.
CAMAROTAWell, look, let's look at what happened to wages at the bottom end of the U.S. labor market. For people without a high school education, they make native-born people 22 percent less than they did 30 years ago in real terms. Let's look at agriculture. Agriculture pays significantly less. Let's look at meat and poultry processing. If you compare what a person makes who does that job today, who did at 1980, they make 45 percent less. If we had less immigration, yes, employers would have to treat their workers better.
CAMAROTAThey'd have to offer the poorest Americans and the least-skilled Americans better wages. But that would have all kinds of positive effects. One thing, it would reduce them their need for social services. It would mean that they would pay more in taxes. It would reduce income inequality. Here's an interesting statistic: The income inequality today in a state like California, which really has been transformed by immigration, is higher today than was Mississippi's in 1970. Immigration is a big contributing factor.
CAMAROTAYou flooded the unskilled labor market, and you remade what was a very much a middle-class society into a very polarized society. The idea that you're going to bring in a lot of people with less than a high school education and get some boom to the U.S. economy is silly. You'd have to believe that lowering the average educational attainment of the workforce is somehow a recipe for success. But in truth, unskilled labor is a tiny fraction of economic output.
CAMAROTASo, for example, in agriculture, the people who pick the lettuce and so forth, they only get about six cents for every dollar from the supermarkets. If you bought a head of lettuce, which would be a great price for a dollar, only six cents goes back to the person who actually picked the lettuce. When you're buying meat at the store, only about seven or eight cents goes back to the person who actually cut that meat up. If we'd let wages rise at the bottom, not only it would be good for the poor but we wouldn't have to worry about its impact on consumers.
REHMSteven Camarota, he is director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies. More of your calls, your email after a short break. Stay with us.
REHMAnd here's an email referring to an issue of vocabulary. It's from John, who says, "I would implore you all not to simply refer to persons not from the U.S. who are here unlawfully as illegals. The situation is far more complicated than a single word can effectively and accurately communicate, not to mention it is offensive. Instead, I refer to them as unlawfully present immigrants, which is a legally more accurate term."
REHMNow, here's another question from Matt in Texas regarding taxes, question regarding the illegal immigrants who are established in this country. "What tax rate do these payroll workers pay? And do they have the right to file tax forms at the end of the year to reclaim any of that income? Would there be any significant revenue loss if these workers were allowed to take advantage of loopholes that standard citizens enjoy?" Frank.
SHARRYWell, there's -- as I said, there's about two-thirds of the unauthorized or undocumented workers in the United States who are -- have payroll jobs, and they pay Social Security and FICA. Most of them are low-wage workers, not all of them, but most of them are. And they pay the same rate as everyone else.
SHARRYWhat's interesting about it is that it's well-known that they won't be able to access the funds that they're paying in to the Social Security fund. And if you talk to the Social Security administration, they have what they call a suspense file. Ninety-nine percent of it, they estimate, is money that comes in from undocumented workers that they can't match up to the proper records, so...
SHARRY...that number totals something like, $7 billion a year. Some -- so you had this huge expansion of the Social Security trust fund by undocumented workers that they'll never see.
CAMAROTAYou know, most research suggests that unskilled immigrants don't pay anywhere near enough in taxes to cover their consumption of public services. My own research suggests, for example, that illegal immigrants, just to the federal government, paid about $15 billion a year a few years ago. So they do pay taxes. About 55 percent are thought to be paid on the books.
CAMAROTAUnfortunately, they generated about $25 billion in cost for net drain at the federal level of about $10 billion. And at the state and local level, the net drain is usually reckoned to be about $50 or $60 billion. But that doesn't mean they don't pay any taxes, but rather they earn incomes commensurate with their educational attainment, which means that they're not going to make much money.
CAMAROTAThe Heritage Foundation did some work looking at unskilled immigrants and estimated that each household headed by an immigrant who hasn't graduated high school uses about $20,000 more in services than they use -- than they pay in taxes. That does not happen because they're lazy. It doesn't happen because they all came to get welfare, rather that fiscal situation reflects the educational attainment. And when we talk about illegals, we're talking about a population that's overwhelmingly unskilled.
GONZALEZOkay. First, on the issue of the fiscal cost of unskilled migrants to the U.S. public purse, whenever we cite numbers from, you know, a six-month period or a 3-year average, I think that's, first and foremost, a static perspective, no?
GONZALEZIn the long run, I think that plenty of studies from the OECD, from the IMF showing that in the long run, the main difference regarding the fiscal sustainability of rich countries -- Japan, Western European countries and the United States -- the U.S., by the way, being the country with a better, a more positive fiscal sustainability perspective, is, first and foremost -- the fact that it continues to have a younger population, still growing demographic profile, driven mainly by Hispanic population growth.
GONZALEZSo when we look at the fiscal situation, I'm thinking, the next 20 to 30 years time when the baby boom entitlements are, you know, the outlays are at their maximum, the U.S. finds itself in a wonderfully solid perspective, vis a vis Japan, Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain. So taking a medium to long-term perspective, I think, helps to qualify that. On the other issue, the issue of, you know, do we refer to these individuals as illegal immigrants, illegal aliens, I'd rather call them economic migrants.
GONZALEZThe vast majority of these individuals are leaving their countries to go to find a job, to try to, you know, forge a better future for themselves and for their families. And, you know, this connects with one of Steven's points regarding how tough it is in the agricultural sector where, you know, workers earn six cents per, you know, piece of lettuce that they pick.
GONZALEZIt's unsurprising that the H-2A visa program, which caters exactly, not temporary visa program, which farmers in the U.S. are very much in favor of, and which has been expanded substantially, that is a sign that, you know, many people in the U.S., many Americans are unwilling, exactly, to go and pick lettuce in the California Central Valley for six cents apiece. Well, guess what, some Mexicans, some Guatemalans, some Salvadorans are willing to do it. Why not?
REHMAll right. To Newport News, Va. Good morning, Marco. You're on the air.
MARCOGood morning, Diane, and to all your guests. This is just a quick comment. You see, in the 1700s and the 1800s, old Mexico was a quasi superpower, almost, by the standard of the day, you know, with cannonball fires and all. But what happened in the early '20s and '30s -- I saw a movie, a classical black and white with Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt, called "The Treasure to Sierra Madre." Americans will go on to Mexico to strike it rich, only just to make money.
MARCOAnd at that time, and in the '50s and '60s, there were never any Mexicans coming into America to work. There were none, hardly any. Employers, farmers and construction people who were begging for Mexicans to come in and work, begging for people just labor. Detroit, and the auto and the steel industry went as far as importing labor from places as far as Yemen.
MARCOAnd because after World War II, there was a lot of deaths in the world -- a lot of young men died in wars, there was a huge shortage on labor and big boom in auto and steel and everything else in the huge industry.
REHMAnd, now, it's all changed. Francisco.
GONZALEZI mean, as a Mexican, how I wish that we'd been a superpower at any point in our history. That is blatantly not true. Truth of the matter is that when you look at the time series, economic history series on the evolution of incomes between the United States and Mexico, there's a gap that becomes bigger and bigger throughout the 19th century. And this has to do, first and foremost, with an internal political instability in Mexico versus a young, growing, confident republic in the United States.
GONZALEZThe issue about Mexicans, in fact, not going to America, not until recently -- you know, the historical record shows that Mexicans were doing cyclical migration, particularly agricultural workers, since the 1880s, 1890s, particularly going to the states of California and Texas. And, of course, Mexico has offered a dreadful 10-year revolution which wiped a third of its population, 1910 to 1920.
GONZALEZThat period saw a big exodus, not only of poor rural dwellers, but also of middle class and well-to-do Mexicans who went to California, to Arizona, to Texas to escape the revolution. So our presence in the U.S., you know, has had some sign, and the economic differentials have been there for the last 200 years.
REHMAll right. And here's an email from Peter in Tarrytown, N.Y., who says, "If we could wave a magic wand and remove all illegals who would perform the jobs we're supposedly not willing to do, how would it affect our overall economy?" Steven.
CAMAROTAWell, I don't think that's a good way to think about it because any effort to actually enforce our laws and encourage people to go home -- and now would seem to be the best time to do that. Things are pretty good in Mexico. We think more people are coming maybe than going. So if we actually enforce the law, now would seem to be the best time. But it would only happen gradually.
CAMAROTAIf there are maybe 11 million illegal immigrants, we might be able to reduce that number, you know, by one-tenth or maybe 1 million or 2 million a year over the next decade. So whatever we would do would have to be gradual. In terms of agriculture, I think it is tough to get Americans to go to agriculture. But it also should -- is almost entirely irrelevant now to this debate.
CAMAROTAAll the research from Pew Hispanic and others show that only about 5 percent of all illegal immigrants actually work in agriculture. They make up a large share of workers there, but agriculture is not where illegals work. They overwhelmingly work in construction, in food service and preparation and light manufacturing and building cleaning and maintenance. And that's where they compete so much with unskilled Americans.
SHARRYWell, to respond to the question, if there was that magic wand, what you would have is a serious worsening of our economic straits. I mean, just -- let's look at agriculture. For every farm worker, it's estimated that there are three upstream jobs related to that farm worker: packing, transportation management, marketing, sales, et cetera. So you have regional economies, such as we're seeing now in Georgia, certainly California, elsewhere, that depend on fruits and vegetables, and machines can't pick them.
SHARRYAnd the only people who can pick them are humans. And as Francisco pointed out, there are Mexicans and Central Americans willing to do that work. It's actually a step up for them. So you have skilled agricultural workers in this country, an estimated 1.5 million. Something like 80 percent of the workforce in agriculture is here without papers. So if you suddenly make them go away, we will be exporting jobs, American jobs, not just immigrant jobs, and we will be importing our food from China.
REHMAll right. To Randy in Elkhart, Ind. Good morning.
RANDYGood morning. I second that. If you took that 11 million people and send them back home, you'd have -- if there's 11 people per household, a million houses vacant. That's just what we need in this economy. I kept track of Goshen City. That's a city of 25,000. About six years ago, they were getting traffic fines of $5- to $7,000 a week from people that had obviously Hispanic surnames, that -- for never having received a driver's license, for drunk driving, for driving while suspended or driving without a license.
RANDYIf you multiply that over the whole country, I mean, you're talking a lot of money that's gone way down now. But if people from Arizona move to Colorado and Utah, as they did, Arizona schools are going to lose 20 percent of their students. You're going to have to lay off 20 percent of your teachers. You're going to have to close a bunch of school buildings that you've already built. In Colorado and Utah, you have to build schools and hire teachers.
REHMSteve, you disagree?
CAMAROTAWell, look, as they said, we have 28 million Americans who don't have a lot of education who aren't working right now. It's at a all-time high. It's been increasing for a long time. We have a test of this. We have -- even before this recession, for example, if you look at the raids at the seven Swift plants that processed meat or the tar hill plant in North Carolina, what happened after all the illegals left? They were, like, 20 percent of their workforce.
CAMAROTAAnd that was kind of all at once. Did the factories shut down? No, they all continued running, even on the day of the raid. Did they replace all their workers? Absolutely. Did they have to pay and treat their workers a little better? Absolutely. Did it result in a big increase in consumer prices? No.
REHMSteven Camarota. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You have a comment, Frank?
SHARRYYeah, if I could commit some policy, Diane, if that's okay with you. Look, we have a choice as a society. We have 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. That population is now stabilized. Some people are leaving, some are coming, but that -- it's essentially a net-zero increase. Most of the population has been here a long time. What opponents like Steven want, and as allies in Congress, is to expel them from the workforce and hope that they go home.
SHARRYWhat we want is a pragmatic and humane approach that says, you know what, we should end illegal immigration. We should have a flexible illegal immigration system that goes up in the good times and down in the bad times. But we should deal with the reality that it's impossible to expel and deport 11 million people who are rooted in our community.
REHMFrancisco, you, too, are in favor of some kind of legalization.
GONZALEZAbsolutely. I supported the comprehensive immigration reform that Senators Kennedy and McCain tried to propel last time in 2007. From my perspective, you know, thinking about this (word?) experiment about the magic wand and just getting rid of 11 million people, let's remember that the idea of full employment is not one where you're going to have zero percent unemployment.
GONZALEZFull employment in any modern capitalist economy means unemployment of 4, 5 percent, and so, you know, among those 28 million that Steven mentioned and for whom, you know, illustration is not easy and for whom, you know, I feel strongly and hope that there's opportunities for them, I don't think that you can, you know, engage in thinking that you can substitute automatically for each one that leaves, one of these 28 million unskilled Americans is going to take a job.
GONZALEZThe natural rate of unemployment hovers around 4, 5 percent. My sense is that if you take away -- it's not going to happen. But if you were to take away those 11 million people, then, Americans, expect to pay more for your food, expect to pay more when you go to restaurants, expect to pay more for your houses, expect to pay more for mowing the lawn. Expect the general price level to move up, inflation.
REHMAnd, Steve, what would you say if, in fact, the many millions who are already here illegally were somehow, as a group, removed from this country? What do you think would happen?
CAMAROTAOver time, I think that -- look, the people who say, look, these are folks here illegally. We now think some -- more are going home than coming. So now they would like their advocates in the business community and on the left wing of the Democratic Party, one is looking for low wages and wants to keep them that way by keeping the workers here, and the other is looking for votes.
CAMAROTABut I think if we step back and ask, does it makes sense to flood our unskilled labor market precisely where the poor are concentrated, precisely where we're going to add to the uninsured population and overcrowd schools and low-income areas? I think common sense suggests that a lower pace of immigration, particularly unskilled immigration, would make a lot of sense.
REHMAnd, Frank Sharry, finally, very briefly, will this be an issue in the 2012 election?
SHARRYIt will indeed. This is a defining issue for Latino and other immigrant voters, the fastest growing group of new voters in America.
REHMFrank Sharry, founder and executive director of America's Voice. Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, and Francisco Gonzalez at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies here in Washington. Thank you all so much. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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