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Immigrants: US Economic Savior or Social and Economic Burden?

Immigration is among the most controversial political issues in the United States. Seen by some as a savior of the U.S. economy others view it as both a social and economic burden. In this part of VOA's series on immigration, Correspondent Serena Parker in Washington takes a closer look at immigration's effect on the U.S. economy.

Arizona's temperate fall weather makes it the ideal place for farmers to grow lettuce, broccoli and other leafy green vegetables that fill American dinner tables. Toiling away under the Arizona sun, crop workers systematically make their way up and down each row tenderly harvesting the winter vegetable crop.

According to the Department of Labor, at least half of the nearly 2,000,000 crop workers in the United States are illegal aliens. The cheap labor they provide is crucial to the $30-billion U.S. farm industry.

Overall, there are an estimated 10,000,000 illegal aliens in the United States. Dan Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, a research organization in Washington that advocates free market policies, says these workers take jobs few native-born Americans are willing to take.

"Immigrants tend to go to segments of the labor market where there is the most demand and less supply. So that is on the high end and on the lower end. Lower-skilled immigrants who come into the United States are typically taking jobs that most Americans are not interested in: picking lettuce in the hot sun, scrubbing floors or toilets in a discount store in the middle of the night, gardening, construction, that sort of work," says Dan Griswold.

Labor economists say the flow of immigrants provides the U.S. economy with a more flexible labor force that keeps industries growing while delivering lower prices to American consumers. The importance of immigrant labor to the U.S. economy was underscored earlier this year when President Bush used his State of the Union address to outline a guest-worker program that would grant temporary work permits to laborers already here.

But there is a cost, says University of Maryland Government Professor Jim Gimpel. "It is, in fact, the native-born workers in those sectors who have been pushed out - they are not willing to work for those low wages,” says Professor Gimpel.

A bipartisan, congressionally appointed Commission on Immigration Reform found that while the U.S. economy as a whole gains from immigration, the losers are less-skilled native-born workers lacking a high-school education. They are forced to compete for jobs with immigrants whose wages fall as a result.

Large-scale immigration, particularly illegal immigration, also imposes a short-term cost on state and local governments that provide education, health care, and other social services.

Researcher John Wahala, of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that advocates tougher immigration policies, says those short-term costs are higher precisely because most undocumented workers are stuck in low-paying jobs.

"The average Mexican lacks a high school education. In fact, at least three-quarters of them do not have one, so it makes it very difficult [for them]. They are stuck in jobs that do not pay very well so they do not pay a lot in taxes and therefore, just as anyone else would use government services, their contribution is not enough to compensate for what they use," says John Wahala.

The impact of immigration on government retirement and medical programs, like Social Security and Medicare, is another point of contention. Pro-immigration advocates argue that immigrant workers arrive in the United States in the prime of their working lives and will pay into the system for decades. Then, for various reasons, many of them never collect their Social Security retirement checks, which leaves the system with a surplus.

But Professor Jim Gimpel cautions that it is not quite so simple. He says one has to weigh the payments immigrants make against the costs in terms of government benefits.

"So you have to think of this as a trade off or as a balance. So yes, they might pay into social security, but do they consume public health services? Do they burden local transportation networks because they commute long distances from home to work," says Professor Gimpel.

In 1997, the National Research Council published what is generally viewed as the seminal study on the influence of immigration on the overall economy. It is often cited by both sides in the immigration debate. The Council found that immigration has a net positive benefit to the United States economy of about $10-billion a year. But the report was quick to point out that relative to the $10-trillion U.S. economy, that benefit is relatively small. Ultimately the immigration debate will be decided on more than simple economic terms.