As tide of illegal immigrants goes home, will US economy suffer?
The illegal immigrant boom has fizzled; and as Mexican migrants go home, the question is whether it will drain the labor pool and hurt the US economy.
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In the more than a dozen states that require businesses to confirm employment eligibility through the Internet-based federal program E-Verify, employers are in a corner. "The em-ployers just really don't have an option," Ms. Whitley says. She adds that the farm labor workforce is 75 percent illegal.Skip to next paragraph
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Whitley has noticed growing interest in the H-2A visa program that brings in temporary seasonal farmworkers. But many employers still shun these visas, saying the program – which requires housing provisions and set wages – is too bureaucratic and costly. Advocacy groups long have maintained the program is fraught with employer abuse.
Massey says spot shortages are possible in sectors that employ large numbers of Mexican workers, particularly agriculture, but he believes that a gradual shift toward the use of guest workers may offset any potential labor deficiencies.
Mexicans in growing numbers are securing visas that allow them to hold temporary US jobs legally, says Massey. "The workers that are coming into the United States are not just agricultural workers, they're workers in the non-agricultural sector, and increasingly, they're skilled workers."
The US State Department reports a 53 percent increase in temporary visas for seasonal farm work issued between 2006 and 2010. And other visa categories are driving the expansion, too, including those for professional health and technology workers under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But even with the visas, the farm labor situation suffers, says David Dyssegaard Kallick, a senior fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in New York. "Those jobs really do seem to go begging when immigrants are pushed out, at least temporarily."
In the long run, Mr. Kallick says, the US labor market probably would adapt: "Maybe wages and working conditions would go up enough to make the jobs more attractive, or maybe some farms would close up shop. Basically, though, I don't think dishes wouldn't be washed in restaurants without immigrants to do it."
He says the flow of immigrants will return when the demand for workers is back, although "we're not anywhere near there" yet.
"As long as the large wage differences between Mexico and the US exist, there will be incentives for people to endure the real risks of crossing illegally," says Judith Gans, manager of an immigration policy program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She says that as jobs do become available, the pressure on the border will correspondingly increase.
In the long term, the changes in Mexico and shifts in migration in all of Latin America may ease the pull north of the border, Ms. Gans adds.
The impact of fewer illegal immigrants coming into the US will depend on how long it takes for the economy to bounce back, says Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy group.
"In the intervening time, a lot can happen in a place like Mexico, where unemployment is relatively low right now," she says. "Birthrates have dropped and the demand for workers has been rising. For young people entering the workforce, it may mean more opportunities and less reason to leave."
• Sara Miller Llana contributed to this article from Mexico City.