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Immigration debate crux: jobs impact

Experts weigh how illegal workers affect US employment.

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In addition to the 7 million Americans looking for jobs, another 1.5 million are considered to be "marginally attached" - that is, not actively looking for work. Moreover, some 386,000 are counted as "discouraged" workers. And there are about 19 million, including students and senior citizens, who are not in the workforce.

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"If we close the borders and have less undocumented workers, it would put some upward pressure on overall wages," says Mr. Chan. "It's no secret business will have to pay workers more money."

But it's not a given that business will do that. "They may just outsource a larger percentage of the work, or the jobs may just disappear," Chan says.

Economists certainly differ on whether tighter immigration will have any effect on the economy. "It's similar to asking a big part of the labor force to leave," says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's "In today's economy where the job market is at capacity, asking people to leave means the economy will not grow as fast. In fact, there could be a very difficult adjustment over the first three to four years when this process is in full swing."

On the other side are those who say it will have very little impact on the economy because most undocumented workers are low paid and relatively unskilled. Yes, there might be some adjustments - Americans might have to eat more plum tomatoes that can be harvested by machines. And the US may have to increase its already swollen import bill to make up for what can't be produced here.

"We might have a lower unemployment rate and a somewhat lower gross domestic product, but it wouldn't be a huge impact," says Mr. Wyss.

However, that depends on who is affected. San Diego builder Sherman Harmer Jr., president of Urban Housing Partners Inc., typically delivers about 300 units of housing per year. He relies on workers coming across the US-Mexican border who have some form of documentation. "We have a shortage of construction workers in California," he explains while in New York.

If he didn't have access to these workers from Mexico, he says he would have to slow the amount of construction he does: "There would be a reduction in the inventory of new homes, condos, and apartments, and that would drive prices even higher."

But, as he walks down 125th Street in upper Manhattan, Kevin Brown, a plumber, says restrictions on illegals might be good for him. "Could I have a better job?" asks Mr. Brown, whose parents are from Jamaica. "Possibly," he says, adding that he knows people out of work who could do a job taken by an illegal immigrant. However, he's also quick to add, "I don't blame anyone. Everybody's got to live."

Not far away, Miguel Almanzar, a bicycle messenger, is reading a newspaper. "This country is made of immigrants," says Mr. Almanzar. But he wants them to be legal immigrants. "There is the threat of terrorism," he says. "Now, the country needs to secure its borders."