Legalization won't lift all laborers

A Mexican immigrant worker harvests organic parsley at Grant Family Farms on October 11, 2011 in Wellington, Colorado.

What would happen if Congress enacted the Senate version of immigration reform? You might expect that workers who are currently undocumented would immediately move up the economic ladder. But many of them won’t.

Take the example of a 49-year old immigrant from Mexico named Margarita. She wouldn’t tell me her last name because she’s working here without papers.

When I met Margarita in downtown Los Angeles, she was cutting and peeling papayas. Her job selling fruit on a street corner pays her $40 a day.

In Spanish, she tells me that she doesn’t like her job, but says it’s all she can get.

If she woke up tomorrow and Congress allowed her to work in this country legally, she doesn’t expect her job options would change very much. She can’t get a better job, she says, because she can’t speak English.

It’s an issue for many immigrants, and makes it harder for them to leave jobs in manual labor.

“Jobs that require levels of language skills are probably hard for them to get,” says Giovanni Peri, a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis.

One of the nation’s top experts on immigrant labor, Peri has studied the impact of legalizing that workforce.

“I don’t expect to see big shifts in the labor market,” says Peri. “Most of these workers are in manually-intensive jobs. In construction, agriculture, and personal services. And that will stay as it is because, in large part, the job that person has is driven by their skills.”

Still, immigrant workers could branch out. Steven Camarota is director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter restrictions on immigration. He expects immigrants will take advantage of new opportunities.

“So, for example, illegals can’t work as TSA agents. With legal status, there might be more job competition there,” says Camarota.

Also, he says, legalization would impact more than just low-skilled jobs.

“It also accelerates skilled immigration” says Camarota. “People with a college education or more, who can take jobs in engineering and computer programming.”

Or academia.

I asked Giovanni Peri if professors worry about foreign competition. He says his salary depends on how much he publishes, and his foreign-born colleagues help him earn more.

“We work on several projects together. And I think I am much more productive, and therefore my salary is increasing as a consequence of the presence of some of these people,” says Peri.

Perhaps a younger PhD would see it differently. As a tenured professor, Peri has the kind of job security that other workers -- immigrant or U.S.-born -- can only dream about.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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