Thousands of illegal immigrants slip into the United States every year. Are they a boon or a burden to the American economy? They cost US taxpayers $7.5 billion a year, says Donald L. Huddle, a Rice University economics professor, in a new study. For every 100 illegal aliens working in the US, 65 Americans are squeezed out of the labor market.
The greatest cost, Dr. Huddle says, is not from illegal aliens using welfare, unemployment insurance, and social services; relatively few apparently do. Rather it is from the Americans that the undocumented workers elbow out of the labor market and onto the public dole.
This study is at odds with the view from some other scholars, most notably Wayne Cornelius of the University of California at San Diego, that illegal immigrants create more jobs in the US than they take from others.
The Cornelius camp has also held that many illegals are only part-time immigrants who contribute more in taxes than they cost in welfare or social services.
Joseph Nalven, an anthropolist and immigration expert in San Diego, says Huddle has made some valuable arguments, but his data appear to be carelessly used. Dr. Nalven is dubious that Houston's labor market can be translated into a national picture. Huddle has probably overestimated the cost of immigration, he says.
Huddle and two researchers, Arthur F. Corwin and Gordon J. MacDonald, a retired deputy chief of the US Border Patrol, did what he calls a ``fairly controlled social experiment.'' They followed the trail of 150 unemployed Houstonians as it wended in and out of the job market.
They found that many entry-level jobs had become ``almost illegalized.'' Employers paid illegals one-third less than the prevailing wage in the industry, yet many of those wages were tax-free. Illegal workers were frequently willing to work harder and under worse conditions than their American counterparts. Jobs held largely by illegals took on lower status, hence became less desireable, for Americans.
And once an employer became accustomed to hiring illegal immigrants, legal residents were unlikely to ever hear about job openings.
The Huddle study could be influential because it is the first to put simple figures to the cost of illegal immigration and the job displacement, says Nalven. But skewed figures can inspire skewed policy, he adds. ``The numbers game is a politically dangerous thing.''