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Undocumented Workers Have Large Impact on Local Economy

Full Focus Reporter Amita Sharma reports on the impact of undocumented workers on the San Diego region's economy.

Originally aired Sept. 12, 2006

Critics of the United States policy toward illegal immigrants often cite the costs of undocumented residents on the nation’s healthcare system and public schools. But immigrants’ rights groups say no discussion of the subject is complete without factoring in the labor pool undocumented workers provide in fields such as agriculture, construction, service industries and childcare. Reporter Amita Sharma has more.

In 2003, Daniel packed his passport, left his family in Tijuana and rode across the border to San Diego in search of prosperity.

Daniel : I came here to the U.S. because it was a better opportunity. The economy is stronger and I can have a brighter future here. (Spanish) 

Today, Daniel works as a granite fabricator in San Diego. He earns more in one day than he made in one month in Mexico. He sends his family there about $700 every four weeks. But he hasn’t seen them in years. That’s because his passport has expired and he lives and works here illegally.

Daniel is one of an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 undocumented workers in San Diego County. Like Daniel, many of these workers are employed by the construction industry. But many also bus tables, wash dishes at local restaurants, clean houses, take care of people’s children and do landscaping.

Cesar Aguilar owns A & L Tile, which employs Daniel. He says he hires illegal immigrants because the legal labor pool for the construction industry is tight. 

Cesar Aguilar: Right now the benefit of having undocumented workers is you have someone who is willing to work. We've been trying to hire for the past four months and nobody really wants to work in the construction industry. It's a hard industry to work in; it pays very well but there are a lot of other options that people who are documented have.

The availability of undocumented workers has been pivotal in fueling San Diego’s economic boom in the last 15 years. That’s according to UCSD immigration specialist Gordon Hanson, who says the boom this region has enjoyed has not been driven solely by biotech, telecom and other digital technologies. Workers in those industries were able to settle here because there was enough housing and cheap services.

Gordon Hanson : Well, illegal immigration has helped make that happen so even [for] those illegal immigrants who are not involved directly in San Diego's key export industries, their presence here is an important part of San Diego's ability to sustain growth in those industries.

But there are costs to illegal immigration as well. Hanson says low-skilled American workers have suffered because their wages remain depressed and they have to compete with illegal immigrants willing to work for less. And there are also costs to taxpayers, particularly in California, where illegal immigrants are younger and have larger families.

Hanson :  Having larger families means that those immigrants are placing greater demands on local public services, particular schools and hospitals, with schools being most important. Being low-skilled means that those immigrants have low-income potential and so their contributions in taxes aren't going to be all that high.

Precise figures do not exist on how much illegal immigration costs San Diego taxpayers. But the County Board of Supervisors is mulling over whether to do a study to find out. Hanson says nationally, the most recent study done in 1999 put the overall cost of illegal immigration to taxpayers at 10 to 20 billion dollars annually.

Hanson: That might seem like a big number, but this is in a 10 trillion dollar economy so you're talking about a net cost that's less than a tenth of a percent of U.S. GDP. For all intents and purposes, it might as well be zero.

Hanson says undocumented workers also share in that tax burden.

Hanson : They pay property taxes if they’re renters or if they’re owners. They pay sales taxes. Many of them pay social security taxes because they’re obligated to present a social security card to their employers.  And if that social security card is fake – which, with an illegal immigrant, it is most certainly going to be --  then those contributions they're making to social security end up in the pocket of the U.S. government.”

Even though Daniel is undocumented, his employer says his taxes are still deducted from his paycheck. As for the immigration debate that rages around him, Daniel says he tries to stay out of the politics of it.

Daniel : I didn't come here with the idea of taking anybody's job, I just came here with the idea of bettering myself.