Ending illegal immigration, say many who have studied the issue, could mean that American workers would lose their jobs, companies would close and the economy would contract.
They make beds in inns across the country. They pick oranges in Florida, strawberries in California, vegetables in Ohio and apples in Washington. And they have built new subdivisions in Phoenix, Atlanta and Charlotte.
For years, policymakers have talked about shutting off the influx of undocumented workers. But the economy has grown to rely on them.
Ending illegal immigration, say many of those who have studied the issue, could mean that American workers would lose their jobs, companies would close and the economy would contract.
In recent years, though, border security has tightened considerably, a strong economy has driven down unemployment, and many employers, particularly those offering low-paid jobs, say there are few alternatives to hiring workers without legal documents.
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President Donald Trump, it turns out, is caught on both sides of the balance between border security and economic prosperity.
The president has vowed to erect a wall to keep out undocumented immigrants and has ramped up the deportation of those in the United States. His administration has conducted payroll audits and workplace raids, which have resulted in the arrest of thousands of workers.
But four undocumented workers have recently come forward at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and the federal E-Verify database suggests that the Trump Organization does not use heightened employment document-verification procedures at several other of its properties across the country, meaning that the chances of employing undocumented workers are high.
Like undocumented workers across the country, the former Bedminster employees interviewed by The New York Times said they used counterfeit Social Security and green cards to get hired.
The Trump Organization has vowed to terminate any undocumented workers it finds on its payroll, and the fate of any of its workers who do not have legal working papers remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that at a time of extremely low unemployment, 3.7 percent nationally, Trump’s golf club might struggle to recruit legal workers to replace any undocumented workers who are terminated.
5 percent of all workers
About 8 million of the nearly 11 million immigrants unlawfully in the United States — down from a high of 12.2 million in 2007 — participate in the labor force. They account for about 5 percent of all workers, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Our economy has absorbed these workers and employers would like more of them, given the low unemployment rate,” said Madeline Zavodny, an economist at the University of North Florida who is an expert on the economics of immigration.
Undocumented immigrants are overrepresented in low-skilled jobs such as farming, construction and child care.
Often, these are jobs their employers have trouble filling with American workers.
Anabele Garcia, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, toils in the vineyards of Sonoma County in California, earning about $15 an hour. When the season ends each year, she finds work cleaning houses and wine estates, earning about $20 an hour. Her husband, Jorge Romero, works in the cow pastures nearby.
“We are here to do any work,” said Garcia, 39. “There are no Americans in the fields.”
Wages aren’t main issue
What would happen if all the undocumented immigrants went away?
Steve Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports curbs on immigration, believes that wages would rise and motivate many chronically unemployed Americans to get back to work.
But wage rates are not the main issue, some economists say, because there would not be enough Americans willing to do blue-collar jobs.
Expectations and status play a role, said Chris Tilly, a labor economist at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Not everybody will do dirty work,” he said.
They might prefer to make a low wage working inside an Amazon distribution center to putting shingles on a roof.
A survey conducted in late 2017 by the Associated Contractors of America found that 70 percent of construction companies were having difficulty hiring roofers, bricklayers and electricians, among others. The accommodation and food services sector reported a record number of vacancies this October.
Triggering a recession
Historically, the regulation of the border with Mexico, the main source of migration, “has always been driven by the needs of the economy,” Tilly said.
That is less true now, under the Trump administration, which has sought to check illegal border crossings by all means possible.
Giovanni Peri, an economist who studies immigration labor at the University of California, Davis, said that with a true cutoff in illegal immigration, the economy would contract. The impact, he said, would fall not just on immigrants — because their work sustains sectors that employ many Americans.
“Some sectors, like construction, agriculture, housing and personal services would be drastically reduced,” Peri said. “There would be companies closing and relocating. There would be jobs lost. There will be towns and cities that would see half their population disappear.”
“It definitely would trigger a recession,” he said. “We are talking about a lot of job loss.”
It is very unlikely that weak, vulnerable American workers would benefit from jobs previously held by immigrants because some of these jobs themselves would disappear, he said.
“Very few of the jobs these immigrants have would be taken by these Americans,” Peri said. “The ones who are not employed have complicated circumstances like drug addiction, alcohol addiction or criminal records.”
Especially at a time of low unemployment, he added, “This would be the worst time to lose them. There are no unemployed Americans ready to do their jobs.”
In some sectors, “there might be people who would do these jobs at much higher wages,” said Zavodny, the economist in Florida. “But it is not clear those jobs would exist at much higher wages.”
The agriculture industry has begun to invest in automation and robotics to compensate for a worsening labor shortage.
In the lettuce fields of California’s Salinas Valley, a new machine plies row after row of romaine lettuce, doing the backbreaking work, long performed by people, of lobbing heads of romaine lettuce from the field. It saves time and human labor.
Still, more than half of all field workers are undocumented, according to the Farm Bureau, which has said that their sudden disappearance would deal a catastrophic blow to U.S. agriculture.
Since the 1990s, undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America have flocked to towns like Dalton, Georgia, to work in the carpet mills. Across the South and in fast-growing cities like Denver, hundreds of thousands have been absorbed by the construction industry as roofers, painters and bricklayers.
Unauthorized immigrants in 2016 represented 10.6 percent of the labor force in Nevada, 8.6 percent in California and 8.2 percent in Texas, according to a study released last month by the Pew Research Center.
In states like Georgia and North Carolina, their presence has grown rapidly to represent 5.4 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively, of the labor force. In Washington state, unauthorized immigrants make up 4.7 percent of the workforce.
In all but four states, service occupations, such as being a waiter, dishwasher or maid, together draw the largest number of undocumented immigrants, the Pew report found.
About 31 percent of all undocumented immigrant workers were in service occupations in 2016, according to the estimates, which were based on data gathered by the Census Bureau.
Unauthorized immigrants represent about 24 percent of all workers in farming, fishing and forestry and 15 percent of those employed in construction, which is the industry that uses the most undocumented immigrant workers overall, at 1.35 million.
Nearly one quarter of restaurant workers in 2016 were foreign-born compared with 18.5 percent for all sectors, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compiled by the National Restaurant Association. A large share are likely undocumented, economists say.
“These workers are often long-tenured and skilled,” said Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of industry advocacy and research at AmericanHort, which represents the nursery industry. “They are nothing short of vital to farms, businesses and rural economies.”
“Each job they perform sustains two to three jobs in the surrounding economy, so even though few Americans seek this field and farm work, the jobs of many Americans and many communities are sustained by their contributions.”