Panel Studies Impact Of New Immigrants On US Jobs, Wages

IMAGINE that you are a $6.50-an-hour hotel worker. You make beds, vacuum rooms, clean toilets. But today you lost your job to a Mexican immigrant who is willing to work for $4.35 an hour, with no benefits.

Now picture yourself as a computer programmer making $52,000 a year. The boss says, "You're fired." Two weeks later, your old job goes to a highly skilled PhD from India who is delighted to do it for $34,000.

Such experiences are becoming commonplace in the United States in the 1990s. From cab drivers to chemists, Americans face increased competition from newcomers, particularly from Asia and Latin America.

Federal officials, urged by big business and big agriculture, opened the nation's doors to 8.4 million immigrants in the 1980s. Recently, Congress liberalized the laws once again, and immigration could soar to over 10 million in the 1990s.

The Commission on Immigration Reform, a new federal agency, now is exploring whether these new residents are depressing wages and working conditions. Commission members, appointed by the White House and Congress, will release findings in two reports, the first of which is due in September 1994.

So far, commissioners are getting mixed reports, though some experts are clearly worried.

David North, who has studied the impact of immigration for the Ford Foundation and other organizations, says there is little doubt that many Americans are being hurt badly.

Mr. North notes "widespread depression of wages and working conditions" where immigrants congregate, particularly in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Miami, and New York.

On the other hand, Gregory DeFreitas, an economist at Hofstra University, suggests the facts are not so clear cut. Until 1989, Dr. DeFreitas says, there was considerable agreement that immigrants had "relatively small" effects on the wages and working conditions of native-born Americans. More recently, however, he says scholars have concluded that immigrants may be dragging down wages, especially for low-income Americans. But more research is needed.

Congress, in setting immigration policy, has generally sidestepped the issue of wages. A number of congressmen have responded favorably to arguments from several economists, such as Julian Simon of the University of Maryland, that on the whole, America benefits greatly from immigration - the more the better.

During their first two hearings, commissioners heard the other side of that story. George Borjas, an economist at the University of California at San Diego, said in a report to the commission that from the mid-1970s to 1990, "the real earnings of less-educated American men deteriorated at an unprecedented rate."

One reason: less-skilled Americans faced more competition from immigrants. Some experts especially worry about the effects of immigration on the nation's cities. They wonder about the impact of pouring large numbers of low-skilled immigrants into cities already facing high unemployment, crime, and poverty.

George High, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, warns that "competition between unskilled workers in our cities has contributed to social and racial tensions, especially between immigrants and American minorities."

North agrees. He says competition from immigrants is "extremely hard on the resident working poor. "

These most vulnerable segments of American society are "clearly powerless and without political clout" in the halls of Congress, North says. Their voices are seldom heard, until a riot tears apart a section of a large city. Ironically, he says the growing numbers of black congressmen on Capitol Hill have done little to change the dynamics of federal immigration policy.

"Blacks have been hurt since Emancipation, politically and economically, by various waves of immigration," he says. "But ... black members of Congress identify with members of the smaller and more newly-arrived Hispanic Caucus, rather than with the black working poor in their own districts."

Immigration was scarcely an issue during the 1992 elections. Republican Patrick Buchanan brought it up in California, but only briefly. Yet experts suggest it soon will be. During the next 33 years, the population of the less-developed countries will rise by an estimated 3 billion, from 4.2 billion to 7.2 billion.

Pressures from people in impoverished nations to migrate to the US are expected to be "truly alarming," Mr. High says. The US, Europe, and other developed areas, such as Japan, clearly cannot absorb everyone who might wish to live there.

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