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Costs And Benefits Of Illegal Immigration Are Unequally Distributed

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The immigration issue sparks strong views. That’s because powerful interest groups have much at stake in either changing things or keeping things as they are. As part of our Envision series "Crossing the Line - Border Stories," we look at the winners and losers under the current system.

The immigration issue sparks strong views. That’s because powerful interest groups have much at stake in either changing things or keeping things as they are. As part of our Envision series "Crossing the Line - Border Stories," we look at the winners and losers under the current system.

An estimated 200,000 illegal immigrants are working in San Diego County. They bring both benefits and costs. UCSD economics professor Gordon Hanson says the problem is those benefits and costs are not evenly distributed.

“Those benefits go primarily to one group of individuals,” he said, “and that is employers in industries that hire illegal immigrants intensively: construction, agriculture, hospitality and tourism.”

Agriculture is a $5 billion a year industry in San Diego.

Special Feature Crossing The Line: Border Stories

Envision San Diego takes a closer look at illegal immigration, exploring why migrants take big risks to work in the U.S., what happens to the children of deported parents, and how this region benefits from -- and pays a price for -- its unauthorized migrant labor pool.

Erik Larson of the San Diego Farm Bureau says that, because land is so expensive, farmers have to grow crops with a high return on investment, and those crops are also labor intensive. He says that without immigrant labor most farms in San Diego would disappear.

“The avocado trees that blanket the hills of Fallbrook and Valley Center, those all go away without farm workers. So do the oranges here in San Pasqual Valley, the nurseries of San Marcos and Vista, the Carlsbad flower fields,” said Larson.

Larson says San Diego consumers benefit from an abundance of fresh local produce, and the 300,000 acres of open space provided by large tracks of farm land that might otherwise be gobbled up by housing developments.

Construction and tourism also benefit from cheap immigrant labor. Tourism is central to San Diego’s economy, and many of the people changing the sheets and washing the dishes in hotels and restaurants are illegal immigrants. Their low wages increase employers’ profits and lower consumers’ costs.

Hanson says the workers who compete with immigrants for jobs are some of the losers in the equation.

“That’s a minority of workers in San Diego County,” Hanson said. “The workers who face the most competition from illegal immigrants would be U.S. workers who haven’t completed high school. That’s less than 10 percent of the total labor force.”

San Diego congressman Brian Bilbray says the problem is that 10 percent doesn’t have much political clout.

“If illegals were coming in and taking the professors’ jobs and the lawyers’ jobs,” Bilbray said, “there would be a lot more outcry in Washington and Sacramento about doing something about it.”

But Bilbray says the biggest losers are taxpayers, because they foot the bill for health and education services for illegal immigrants.

“The fact is, there are a few who are making money off this,” he said, “and they’re expecting the general population to carry this. You’ve got to stop that. The trouble is the very wealthy and the very powerful are the ones who are making the most out of this, who are making the most profit out of this.”

The very wealthy also benefit from cheap labor to maintain their mansions and manicure their estates. UCSD professor Gordon Hanson estimates their cost savings from using illegal immigrant labor more than balances the extra taxes they pay for services for immigrant families.

“Compare that wealthy family with an upper middle class family. They’re in a higher income tax bracket, but your income doesn’t make it possible for you to pay for all the homecare, childcare, yardcare services that that wealthy family is getting. That family, they might be net losers,” said Hanson.

Illegal immigrants pay taxes, too. In the backyard of a modest home in Vista, a man who has raised a family and worked illegally in California for 20 years lays out his tax returns and an identification card assigned to him by the federal government.

“This is the actual document the IRS sent me,” he said, “and through this number I’ve been doing my tax reports every year since 1993.”

He leafs through the documents and produces about 15 years worth of tax returns.

“I would be more than willing to prove that I’ve been paying taxes like everybody else,” he said.

The tax ID card allows employers to deduct taxes from payroll checks. Hanson estimates the federal government collects between $40 and $50 billion a year from these taxes, but this worker will never see any tax credits or social security, because he’s not a U.S. citizen.

“No matter how long I’ve been here,” he said, “no matter how much taxes I’ve been paying, there is no law that says, OK, you could be legal. We have people that are against us, and I don’t blame them - they have their own point of view - they see things their own way. All I ask is respect my own point of view. And the people that handle the law, all I ask is that for them to be fair.”

Congressman Bilbray is adamantly against any reform that includes a path to amnesty.

“If you’re here legally, you have rights and you’ll have a better life,” Bilbray said, “and if you are here illegally, you‘re going to need to go home.”

Professor Hanson takes a different view of immigration reform.

“There’s a built-in inequity in the system,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job of spreading the benefits of immigration around than we do currently.”

Until there is a better understanding of who’s getting those benefits and who’s paying those costs, it will be difficult to get enough support to craft solutions.

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