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UCLA study says legalizing undocumented immigrants would help the economy

Based on surveys done after the 1986 amnesty program, it concludes that even during the recession, legalizing undocumented workers would benefit the economy. Not everyone agrees.

January 07, 2010|By Anna Gorman

Even during the ongoing recession, immigration reform legislation that legalizes undocumented immigrants would boost the American economy, according to a new study out of UCLA.

The report said that legalization, along with a program that allows for future immigration based on the labor market, would create jobs, increase wages and generate more tax revenue. Comprehensive immigration reform would add an estimated $1.5 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product over 10 years, according to the report.

"If we are going to create a solid recovery with good wages, we have to fix this hole that we have at the bottom of the labor market," said the author, Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, an associate professor with the UCLA Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies. "This is not about bringing in a lot of workers. This is about your neighbors and if we are better off where everybody in the economy has the ability to fight for their families and to contribute more to the economy rather than staying in the shadows."

Hinojosa-Ojeda based the study in part on surveys done after 1986 legislation that resulted in the legalization of nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants. Those surveys showed that immigrants who became legal moved on to better-paying jobs and became more educated, resulting in more spending and more tax revenue. That legislation was passed during a similar economic downturn, he said.

The study, being released today, comes shortly after a renewed commitment by the Obama administration to back legislation this year that would provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. The study is being released by two Washington-based immigrant rights organizations, the Immigration Policy Center and the Center for American Progress.

Hinojosa-Ojeda also projected that the economy would benefit from a temporary worker program, by raising the GDP by $792 billion. And the economy would suffer if the U.S. deported all illegal immigrants, which he acknowledged was an unlikely option. Mass deportation, he concluded, would reduce the GDP by $2.6 trillion over 10 years.

Immigration reform advocates said linking economic recovery and immigration reform seems counterintuitive, but the report shows that they are closely connected.

"You can't build a strong, robust economy on top of a broken immigration system," said Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy and advocacy for the Center for American Progress. "In fact, if you fix our immigration system, it makes our economy stronger and more robust."

But Federation for American Immigration Reform spokesman Ira Mehlman said that even with legal status, many immigrants would continue to work in low-wage jobs, meaning their tax revenue wouldn't make much of a difference to the economy. Also, legalization would flood the labor market and drive down wages rather than increase them, he said.

Mehlman said those supporting amnesty know they have a difficult sell because of the state of the economy.

"They are trying to portray this as an economic shot in the arm," he said. "But I am not sure the American public is going to buy it."

anna.gorman@latimes.com

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