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Illegal -- but Essential

Experts say undocumented immigrants are a driving force in the economy, despite a toll on public services and unskilled workers

October 01, 2006|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

Prices surged for a number of reasons over the last few years, including very low interest rates, but experts say immigrants made a big difference in California. Their apartments and houses may be shabby, but their sheer numbers exert a profound effect. In a state that never has enough housing, the hundreds of thousands of units rented to immigrant families put upward pressure on all prices.

Then there are the bad things that aren't happening despite the immigrants' presence. For instance, they don't seem to be creating an unemployment problem. Joblessness in California, with 24% of the country's illegal immigrants, has tracked the low national rate.

All this evidence, many economists say, makes a powerful argument that immigrants' role can be characterized as somewhere between important and irreplaceable.

"The only people to benefit from the deportation of millions of low-skill workers would be other low-skill workers, who would get an immediate increase in pay rates," said Timothy Kane, an economist with the conservative Heritage Foundation. "However, they would also be the first to lose their jobs during a recession -- which would be inevitable if the economy were shocked in this fashion."

Many Californians forcefully disagree with this assessment, saying immigrants have dragged down the quality of life in the state. They point to neighborhoods overflowing with poor immigrants. In some occupations, such as landscaping and construction, workers who don't speak Spanish say they can't get hired.

Other costs carry a more defined price tag. The California Hospital Assn. says emergency-room care for uninsured immigrants, including delivery of babies, costs taxpayers and private insurers about $650 million a year.

Whether born here or brought here, children of illegal immigrants have access to a free education. The Palo Alto-based Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy estimates that this schooling costs as much as $6 billion annually.

Teitelbaum says the cost is even higher if you take into account how the influx has strained classrooms.

"California used to have one of the best systems of public education," he said. "Now it has one of the worst."

Feeling Squeezed Out

Sean Jourdan stood on the sidewalk at an Inglewood shopping center, hawking DirecTV satellite subscriptions. A natural salesman, he charmed passers-by into taking his bright yellow leaflets.

"Let me give you a flier," he said to a woman and her grandson coming out of the Giant Dollar Store. "What do you have at home? Comcast? I'll give you double what they're giving you for half of what you're paying."

Jourdan took classes at two community colleges but dropped out before getting a degree. When he was in his early 20s, he attended the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center in Watts, a school started after the 1965 riots. Trained as a telecommunications technician, he was soon making $50,000 a year installing TV systems.

"It was a living wage," said Jourdan, 32, who is African American. "There are a lot of jobs out there, but only a few pay a living wage."

At first, many of his co-workers were black. Over time, however, his firm reduced payments for installation. Meanwhile, it hired more Latinos. Many couldn't speak English, Jourdan said, so he assumed they were new arrivals from Mexico and Central America.

By the time Jourdan left his last installation job in June, the pay rate for each house call had shrunk so much that he was making only about $25,000 a year. The last company he worked for had two black technicians out of about 25, he said.

Jourdan was briefly in the media spotlight a few months ago after attending a rally for the Minuteman Project, which vehemently opposes illegal immigration. "They're the same type of people who hunted us down when we escaped from the plantation," he said. "But on this issue, I unite with them."

Jourdan grew up near this mall, but it's no longer the place he knew. There's a machine that makes fresh tortillas in the Superior supermarket, signs in Spanish in the Rite Aid and a Latino construction crew redoing a vacant storefront.

"Give me a call. I'll save you money," he promised a young Latina. She smiled and took the flier. Jourdan may be upset by illegal immigrants, but many make good customers because they "haven't had 25 years to run up their credit." Every sale that survives DirecTV's credit check nets Jourdan a $150 commission.

"Although I can make money, it's a hustle," he said. "I'm going to have to learn Spanish."

Workers on the margins can be hurt by illegal immigration, economists note. A 2005 study by Harvard economist George Borjas and Lawrence F. Katz of the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that native-born high school dropouts lost as much as 8% in wages from 1980 to 2000 because of illegal immigration.

UC Berkeley economist David Card has challenged those findings, saying cities such as Los Angeles are absorbing large numbers of laborers without wages being affected.

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