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Illegal Immigration, The Economy And Public Safety


We talk to Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray about what California can learn from Arizona's immigration law and discuss the economic impact of illegal immigration with leading San Diego economists. And we talk to the San Diego Police Department about its arrest policies and efforts to ensure that community members feel safe going to the police department to report a crime.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The fallout from Arizona's new immigration law, SB-1070 continues. Big May Day rallies criticized the law. Lawsuits and boycotts have been initiated. The San Diego City Council has voted to officially oppose the law and calls on Arizona's legislature to repeal it. But some members of San Diego's congressional delegation have spoken out in favor of the law which requires police in Arizona to detain and arrest people who cannot produce documentation that they are in the country legally. Last week, we heard support from GOP Congressman Duncan Hunter, and this morning Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray joins us. He represents the 50th District. And, Congressman Bilbray, good morning. Thanks for joining us today.

BRIAN BILBRAY (California Representative, 50th District, U.S. House of Representatives): Great to be with you, Maureen. I just want to clarify that the Arizona law only allows you to detain if there’s suspicion of immigration violation after they detain you for another offense. So we’ve got to make it clear that this is in connection to other activities that law enforcement’s engaged in.

CAVANAUGH: Right, that’s the amendment that the Arizona people put in over the weekend. Congressman, many of us have seen you on television defending this law. Why do you think it’s a good idea?

BILBRAY: Well, I think it’s kind of hypocritical for those of us in the federal government not to defend it because what it is, it’s a state version of our federal program called 287G. So all they’ve done is instead of adopting the federal program city by city, or county by county, like people have done all over this country, hundreds of cities and counties do it now, they did it statewide. And so it is kind of interesting that some of us in the federal government would point fingers at the state for literally not only adopting the text about what constitutes a lawful contact and everything else but also the fact that the governor, when she signed this, put an executive order in to make sure the training and the protocols that we use in the federal government and we train the locals to do will be trained at the state level in Arizona universally.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve gotten some criticism by saying Arizona police can tell an illegal immigrant from their clothes and their shoes. Do you have any second thoughts about that remark?

BILBRAY: No, Maureen, I was saying the whole picture. There’s a lot of indications. You pull somebody over. Let me give you an example that really happened and that was a case where there was a initial contact made over a complaint of trespassing or something if I remember right, and the fact that the officer noticed that the person was dressed in a jogging outfit acting like he was jogging north from the border, and wearing dress shoes. And the officer said, you know, it was kind of a dead giveaway that something was suspicious here but he had already been called in. So, no, the dress, the manner, the manner in which someone acts, the environment – like I get pulled over all the time when I’m down in the Tijuana River Valley when I come out of certain areas. There’s certain behavior that does initiate contacts. And the fact is, is that the way you’re dressed – you may be running into somebody who has – who’s got mud up to his knees and he’s just walking through a suburb down in the South Bay. There may be some kind of suspicion there but if he gets – now he’s got a trespassing or a burglary complaint and this person matches the description then it ends up being all inclusive. And I think you’ve got people who were saying because I said one item could be, even the way they dress, and that was just showing just how much officers are trying to look at the total picture.

CAVANAUGH: What do you think that California can learn from this Arizona law if anything?

BILBRAY: Oh, I’ll tell you what you can learn from, is that the people that are really raising cane in Arizona today were the ones who were complaining about Arizona two years ago that implemented E-Verify. And if you really want to nip this in the bud, what Arizona is doing now is really treating a symptom of what America hasn’t done in the two years, and that is initiate the universal application of verification before you hire people. I mean, the border’s not the problem, Arizona’s not the problem, the problem is that there are employers across this country who are engaged in employing illegal labor for cheap exploitation and that the United States government has not allowed the initiation or have not required that all employers play by the same rules that the federal government’s required to, even members of Congress and every contractor who does business with the United States government. The Obama administration now has implemented this for all contractors. I want to just tell you, Maureen, if Congress can use a verification system, anybody can use a verification system. I’ve worked in this town long enough to know this system works and – But when Arizona initiated, you did not see the people say, hey, here’s a system where everybody is treated equally, everyone who applies for a job needs to verify that their social security number and their name matches, and that’s how you eliminate this paranoia and this concern about, oh, there’s going to be selective enforcement here. You do it – You require it to be universally applied to everyone.

CAVANAUGH: I know we can’t keep you long, Congressman, but I just want to ask you, are you going to be working on a bipartisan immigration reform package? And when do you think that’s going to come up in Congress?

BILBRAY: Maureen, absolutely, we have one that Congressman Shuler of North Carolina’s put together. In fact, last year, the same bill, the SAVE Act, which not only requires employers to E-Verify but takes away the tax deduction for businesses that are hiring illegal aliens and then having the gall to write off it as a business expense. And we’ve had not only large numbers of Democrats and Republicans sign on that, we’ve got members of the Hispanic Caucus, members of the Black Caucus, and that bill can move. The trouble is, there’s this mentality after the election that no immigration bill can move unless there’s some kind of amnesty or special program created for those 12 to 20 million people who’ve broken our laws, and that nothing will be allowed to move, even a bipartisan bill like Mr. Shuler’s proposal, unless there’s some accommodation for those illegally in the country. And I think that is the big problem. We’ve got to earn the trust of the American people before we talk about any of the other issues, and one of the ways we can do that is to start cracking down on illegal employers. And the one way to do that is have a simple system so we can separate those who may accidentally hire illegals from those who are purposely doing it. And then we get to the source and, Maureen, those of us on the border, you know, everybody says secure the border, secure the border. That’s a catchword for don’t do the tough stuff of telling our friends stop hiring illegals and then there would not be illegals crossing the border. They wouldn’t have a job when they got here. And everybody knows the overwhelming majority of these people crossing the border illegally are coming for employment that they know that is available because there is unscrupulous employers who are continuing to feed the problem by hiring people not at the border but in places like Kansas, in places like Vermont, in places like Montana. We’ve got to make sure that, as a country, we do this universally, and it should be the minimum the American people are asking for. Social security numbers are stolen all the time and with a simple computer check system, we can eliminate not only the fraud part of people taking social security numbers but the violence, the death, and all the problems we’re seeing along our border.

CAVANAUGH: Congressman Bilbray, thanks so much for speaking with us this morning.

BILBRAY: Thank you very much, Maureen. I look forward to coming home.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. That was Congressman Brian Bilbray. We are talking about reaction to the Arizona illegal immigration law and trying to determine what are the facts about immigration in California, in San Diego. And I’d like to introduce some new guests. Gordon Hanson is professor of Economics and Director of the Center on Pacific Economies at UCSD. And, Professor Hanson, good morning.

GORDON HANSON (Director, Center on Pacific Economies, University of California San Diego): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Marney Cox is here. He’s Chief Economist of the San Diego Association of Governments. Good morning, Marney.

MARNEY COX (Chief Economist, SANDAG): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think illegal immigration hurts our economy or helps it? You can give us a call with your questions and comments at 1-888-895-5727 or you can post your comments online at You know, Marney, I want to follow up on something that the Congressman was talking about, this E-Verify system. Do you – Are you familiar with what he’s talking about, the E-Verify?

COX: Only in the sense of how it works, not necessarily being involved in its use. And the way that it works is typically an employer must verify that the employee that they’re hiring is legally employable. And so you can do that all online. Personally, I’ve never used it but it sounds like it’s an opportunity to use the technology we have, right, to help us in – take a look at employees and verify that they’re actually here legally.

CAVANAUGH: So from your answer, I’m understanding that this is not like a countywide policy to use E-Verify.

COX: No, it is not.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. What impact, Professor Hanson, what – This is a big question but maybe you can take it piece by piece. What impact does illegal immigration have on the economy of California? Do we have statistics like that?

HANSON: We don’t have great statistics for its impact on California. We do have pretty good statistics for its impact on the United States as a whole, and, here, there’s a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, illegal immigrants have become a very important part of the low-skilled labor force in the United States. Around 20% of the workers who have less than a high school education are illegal immigrants. And these workers have become vital to industries like agriculture, construction, low end manufacturing, in particular food processing, food preparation, building maintenance and so forth. So for a certain set of industries and particular regions, illegal immigrants as workers are vital. But for the nation as a whole, these workers are only about 5% of the labor force and on top of that their, because of their low skills, their contribution to total productivity is pretty small. So for the nation as a whole, the net economic impact of illegal immigration is quite small. It’s well less than 1% of U.S. national income, of U.S. GDP.

CAVANAUGH: And so where does that leave the argument that illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from American citizens?

HANSON: Well, you know, oddly enough over the last 50 years we have developed a scarcity of low skilled labor in the United States. As recently as 1960 half of U.S. workers hadn’t completed high school. That figure for people born in the United States is now down to 8%. So as a consequence, we have this demand for low skilled labor to work in a variety of industries, the ones I just mentioned, and in addition to home care, yard care, a whole variety of services that are – that households in California and elsewhere around the country purchase. And, you know, there’s not a lot of low skilled labor around and illegal immigrants have stepped in to fill that gap.

CAVANAUGH: Marney, what do we know about the impact that undocumented workers have on local jobs and wages?

COX: Well, I think that they’re back to a paradox point. We’re able to count what the value of the entire labor force is to the local economy. Unfortunately, we – it’s very difficult to break apart that piece that’s contributed just to illegal immigrants. Sometimes illegal immigrants are very transient oriented, they’re very seasonally oriented, and so it’s very difficult to gather enough information at any particular point in time. But I think here in San Diego one of the unique aspects is that we’re right next to the border. So, you know, it’s different than if you’re in Chicago or New York or something like that. Here, being right next to the border, you can actually work here and then go back to Mexico and, you know, for the evening, then come back to work again. And that’s why we’ve got, you know, literally the busiest border in the entire world is right here in Tijuana-San Diego area. And we see probably quite a few people who are coming over to work. One of the other industries that I’d add, excuse me, to Professor Hanson’s list is the visitor industry here in San Diego, hotel, motels, restaurants, things like that, also highly dependent upon that particular labor force.

CAVANAUGH: Professor Hanson, how – would you say that there’s any part of the U.S. economy that is dependent on illegal immigration?

HANSON: Well, I think when you think about the incorporation of illegal immigrants into the U.S. labor force, you want to divide industries into two groups. One are industries that produce stuff that we can’t import from abroad, so this includes construction, this includes food preparation, this includes cleaning services and the like. So those are jobs we can’t have workers outside the United States do and many of those sectors, in particular the ones that use low skilled laborers in large numbers, have become dependent. You take away those workers, those industries aren’t going to fold because, you know, we rely on those services. But then think of a second class of sectors where we could import those goods from the rest of the world, so that would include agriculture and low end manufacturing, apparel, food processing and so forth. If you took away low skilled labor so you really – you shut down illegal immigration, you would pretty dramatically impact the types of agricultural goods that are grown in California and the viability of low end manufacturing in certain regions of the United States.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Professor Gordon Hanson and Marney Cox and we’re talking about – we’re trying to determine what the facts are about illegal immigration in California and how it affects our economy. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 or you can post your comments online at I want to ask you both, starting with you, Professor Hanson, how does the number of illegal immigrants apprehended at the border correlate to what’s going on with the economy in the U.S. and Mexico?

HANSON: Well, if we look over the last 30 years, what we see is a very tight relationship between what’s happening in the U.S. business cycle and what’s happening in the Mexican business cycle and the number of people that are trying to get into the United States. So work that we’ve done here at UC San Diego shows that every time Mexican wages fall by 10% relative to wages in the United States, you get an increase of about 6% in people trying to get into the United States illegally. So that flow of workers across the border, as Congressman Bilbray was saying, is all about economics. It’s about individuals trying to better their economic livelihoods by coming to where the jobs are.

CAVANAUGH: And Marney.

COX: Yeah, I would agree with that, that the primary draw to this side of the border is the wage rate. If you think about it, just in terms of calibrating, you know, minimum wages south of the border, minimum wages here, we’re up about $8.25 now here in California, somewhere around there. It’s still probably a dollar, less than a dollar down there. So it’s a huge difference in terms of just crossing an individual border and earning substantial amounts. So that is the real draw here. The other thing is, is I’d say that one of the things that we can look at to determine that is the wait lines. I mean, every morning, the waits at San Ysidro and Otay Mesa are anywhere from three to four hours long just to – and they start at 4:00 a.m. in the morning. And a lot of those people are not just coming over to shop or visit friends, they’re coming over to work in the U.S. and then go home in the evening. Now we’re beginning to see backups going south because Mexico has – is trying to stop some things going into their country that are being brought in, guns, things like that, and so now starting about three o’clock, we’re beginning to see traffic jams that back up all the way from the border to the 5-805 merge there. So we’re beginning to see traffic jams both ways, which is going to add pressure. We have to do something about this problem because it’s beginning to affect the economy overall and the capabilities of – on both sides of the border to actually do business together.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Professor Hanson, I know that you can’t stay with us for our entire program but I do want you to answer one question for us before you go, if you can. We’ve heard a lot about – back and forth about how illegal immigration hurts our economy and then there are some voices that say, but wait a minute, illegal immigration is also contributing to our economy. So what is that balance there from your understanding?

HANSON: So the net impact of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy, to a first approximation is, in effect, zero. This is something that comes as a bit of surprise to those, I’m sure, who are deeply immersed in the debate. On the plus side, what do you have? You have that U.S. residents, in particular employers who hire these immigrants and consumers who buy the goods and services they produce, they benefit. On the negative side, what do you have? You have workers whose wages might fall a bit and you have taxpayers who shoulder the cost of providing for public services that illegal immigrants use after we’ve netted out their contribution to taxes. You sum all of that up and you get a figure that is a negative impact on the U.S. economy that’s less than a tenth of a percent of U.S. GDP. That’s so close to zero, what we say, it is, in effect, a wash. So I think what that – one conclusion to draw from this is all of the vitriol that we’re seeing about illegal immigration, it’s not about its global impact on the United States, it’s about its impact on particular regions and particular groups and their sense that the costs and benefit of immigration in the United States are not shared equally.

COX: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: You want to comment?

COX: Yeah, I do. In fact, to highlight that last point the professor is making, it is about specific regions, and I think that’s the hard part for people across the U.S. to understand. Here in San Diego, I think we have a pretty good relationship with our Mexican citizens in terms of cross culture and jobs and things like that. It wasn’t always that way. We’ve gone through ups and downs in this relationship in the past but I do believe that where these two intersect the most is where a lot of the problems actually begin to occur. Moving away from the border, you’re not going to end up with as big of impacts. You end up in Northern Arizona, you’re probably not going to have the same impacts as you do in Southern Arizona where all of these issues are arising. So regions are very – a very important key to solving this problem.

CAVANAUGH: Professor Hanson, I want to thank you very much for joining us.

HANSON: Thank you very much, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Gordon Hanson, Professor of Economics and Director of Center on Pacific Economies. I want to sneak in one call before we go to the break and say hello to Marcus in Pacific Beach. Good morning, Marcus. Welcome to These Days.

MARCUS (Caller, Pacific Beach): Hello. A great show.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

MARCUS: One thing that – I understand that illegal immigration is good for our economy in the short run but what concerns me is that we’re bringing in large numbers of poor and uneducated people and looking at the past few decades it seems that it’s, in a sense, leaving a legacy of poverty in our country. And it’s a tremendous strain on our education, healthcare and legal system – or, judicial system. And so, I mean, I’d be all for, for bringing in very educated immigrants, maybe from China, that, you know, are doing very well in technology and things like that. I mean, a good example is Singapore where they’re very careful about the immigrants that come to their country and they make sure that the people that come in are highly educated and, you know, that’s in part of why they have some of the best test scores in the world is they bring in highly educated immigrants.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for your comment, Marcus. And, Marney, do the people who come here illegally leave a legacy of poverty in San Diego?

COX: Well, I think two things, one, I think what Marcus may be talking about is the legal side of immigration, which we get a lot of high educated people, no doubt about it. I think what our conversation this morning is about, the illegal side, and we’re probably going to end up with less highly educated people who have to resort to illegal immigration to get here. And I think Professor Hanson’s earlier point is a really good one here, and that is that those who are coming across the border illegally are doing so to look for a job. Where our biggest demands are today are in the low skilled area, not in the high skilled area and so that’s why we’re seeing, you know, back to Marcus’ point, all these people who are coming in with relatively low amounts of education or skill. They are still contributing, right, to the economy because that’s where our demand is coming from but they’re doing it in such a way as they have to break our laws in order to get here and that’s really where the problem arises.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue our conversation, and we’re urging you to post your comments online at You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: 24.18 I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guests are Marney Cox, and he is Chief Economist of the San Diego Association of Governments. Right now, I’d like to welcome David Ramirez. He’s Executive Assistant Chief of the San Diego Police Department. Assistant Chief Ramirez, welcome to These Days.

DAVID RAMIREZ (Executive Assistant Chief, San Diego Police Department): Good morning, Maureen. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now we’ve been talking about the Arizona illegal immigration law. It requires police, after making lawful contact, to request documentation from people they suspect are here illegally and detain and arrest people if they cannot prove they are in the country legally. How is that different from what police here in San Diego do?

RAMIREZ: Well, what we do here in the city of San Diego, we have a policy, undocumented persons policy with the San Diego Police Department, and we do not randomly stop people and check for immigration, their immigration status. What we do is if there’s someone that we believe is involved in some type of criminal activity that we come in contact with and we detain them and we think they might be involved in a crime, then at that time we may delve into what their immigration status is. There has to be a criminal nexus to us contacting them.

CAVANAUGH: And a criminal nexus, that’s something more than simply like having your taillight out or something like that.

RAMIREZ: Absolutely. That does not include minor, you know, minor traffic stops or something like that, you’re right.

CAVANAUGH: And if – Do the police actually ask for people to submit some documentation about whether or not they’re here legally?

RAMIREZ: Well, like I said, you know, we train our officers that if they stop someone, they have reasonable suspicion that they’re involved in some type of crime and they’re detaining them and they’re investigating the crime and they need to try to identify this person, then, yes, we would ask for some type of identification if, again, if they’re being detained because we think they’re involved in some type of criminal activity.

CAVANAUGH: And, indeed, if there is someone who you suspect is involved in criminal activity and cannot produce any documentation that they’re here legally, what is the next step you take then?

RAMIREZ: Well, if we have – if we stop someone and we have reason to believe that they’re involved in criminal activity and we start doing the investigation and we determine through talking with them that they may be here illegally then at that point or at some point in time we may ask for the assistance of a Border Patrol officer. It just depends on the situation.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Assistant Chief Ramirez, from your point of view, what are the potential problems for police in perhaps requiring them to take that extra step that they are in Arizona, to ask for these documents and to basically question people they suspect are here illegally? Does that actually pose some potential problems for police?

RAMIREZ: Well, what I can tell you is what’s worked here in San Diego.


RAMIREZ: You know, we think that we have a policy that works. We have a very good relationship with the community here in San Diego, all the communities, and a lot of times, you know, we can’t – we have to have people report crime and if people are afraid that, you know, because they’re here illegally that, you know, that if they report a crime or if they’re a victim of a crime and they’re afraid to report that to the police because of their immigration status, I think that can create some problems. I can’t really comment what’s going on in Arizona…

CAVANAUGH: Certainly.

RAMIREZ: …but I can tell you that this policy has certainly worked well for us and we need witnesses and victims, regardless of their immigration status, to feel comfortable to call the police.

CAVANAUGH: And, Marney, law enforcement – people feeling comfortable with law enforcement agencies all across the county is, I would imagine, a deterrent to criminal activity.

COX: Yeah, very much so. In fact, I know that early on there was some concern that our trolley system that runs all the way to the border would be a direct route for illegal immigrants then up into the rest of the region and create havoc. In order to help understand the commute on the trolley, the agency’s actually done surveys to find out who’s actually on it and how they’re using it and then if there are crimes, what kind of crimes are being committed, things like that. And we didn’t find any correlation at all between illegal, for example, immigrants and crime or the use of the trolley for those purposes. So it gets a little overblown. People are anticipating problems as opposed to actually seeing whether or not they actually occur.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, Assistant Chief Ramirez, do the San Diego Police find lots of criminal activity among the immigrant population here in San Diego?

RAMIREZ: Well, to be quite honest with you, we don’t – When we take a crime report and when we do arrest reports, we don’t characterize whether or not they’re here legally or illegally.


RAMIREZ: It’s recorded as a crime so we don’t keep statistics on whether or not the person arrested or whether or not the victim of a crime is here in the United States legally or illegally.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I really want to thank you for joining us for – to clarify what we’re doing here in San Diego. Thank you so much.

RAMIREZ: Well, you’re very welcome. Have a nice day.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. You do the same. And I want to thank you, Marney Cox, for being here and talking to us about all – about illegal immigration in San Diego.

COX: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to go online and post your comments, please do, Coming up, we’ll hear why a local minister has decided to stop performing weddings as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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