Illegal Mexican aliens lose welcome as economy dips

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The temperature is not the only hot topic in the US Southwest this summer. So, too, is concern over the economic impact of Mexican aliens on the job market at a time when the nation's unemployment rate is rising.

Economists expect the pressure for Mexicans to search out jobs in the United States to remain strong this year as a result of poor weather that has hurt Mexican agricultural production. Farming employs over 40 percent of Mexico's labor force.

Even in the relatively robust local economies in Texas, tension is building. "In the past, illegal immigration [of Mexicans] was viewed mainly as positive for the economy. Now the perception is that they are a drain on the economy," says Richard E. Ryan, who regularly surveys the Houston area for V. Lance Tarrance & Associates, a polling and research firm.

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Mr. Ryan reports that increasing numbers of those surveyed view Mexican aliens as costing more in social services than they contribute in taxes. This change in perception may be partly a result of publicity surrounding an important case recently brought before a US district court in Houston challenging the state's policy of not educating alien children in public schools. A decision in the case is expected soon.

However, the recession clearly has raised concerns among US workers about jobs and wages. "The biggest negative impact [of illegal aliens] is that their presence depresses wages throughout the state," declares G. G. Garcia, special assistant on Mexican affairs to Texas Gov. William Clements.

Joe Razo, director of a state program in California to protect undocumented workers from illegally low wages and poor work conditions, agrees the mood is shifting against Mexican aliens in the US."Every time the economy deteriorates, public attitudes change more to wanting to keep foreigners out." Ironically, criticism that Mexican undocumented aliens are taking precious jobs is particularly sharp within the Los Angeles area Hispanic community, Mr. Razo said.

Nonetheless, most knowledgeable observers do not sense the same kind of anti-illegal alien backlash that surfaced during the last national recession in 1974 and 1975.

"The mood is very different now," says Leonel Castillo, former commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service and now a consultant in Houston.

Mr. Castillo said in an interview that while many Americans want tighter controls on illegal Mexican immigration, "they are more conscious that we cannot simply get rid of all the [illegal] Mexicans now in the United States, and that they have become vital to our economy."

There are an estimated 3 million to 6 million illegal aliens in the United States. If these undocumented workers hold jobs at the expense of legal residents, they could be responsible for roughly half the nation's unemployment rate.

However, economists familiar with the alien labor market generally agree that many of the undocumented workers now take jobs that are low paying or that for other reasons are not attractive to US citizens. Therefore, this reasoning goes , the aliens are a necessary labor force.

Despite a deteriorating US economy, most experts do not foresee a lessening of illegal Mexican immigration in the short term. Wages remain substantially higher in the United States than in Mexico and the relative prosperity of the US Southwest border region will continue offering job opportunities.

In addition, US economists see a continuing high number of Mexican farmers seeking new employment. Agricultural output was hit hard last year by a drought that has continued into 1980, although there has been some rain recently.

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