What an influx of legal workers might mean

Scott Tong Nov 20, 2014
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What an influx of legal workers might mean

Scott Tong Nov 20, 2014
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If millions of undocumented immigrants are suddenly authorized to work legally in the U.S., how might the American economy be affected? 

The country has 11 million undocumented workers give or take, according to the Pew Research Center, and workers without papers make up 5 percent or so of our labor force.

It’s a varied group, but large numbers of them rent rather than own, speak English poorly and live at 150 percent of the poverty line. That translates to around $18,000 a year for an individual, or roughly $36,000 for a family of four.

This group works largely “in the hospitality industry, in construction and in places with agriculture,” says Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution. “But people would be surprised at the variation that is behind those numbers.”

If many of these immigrants are allowed to get permits to work legally, the Migration Policy Institute figures the change could affect upwards of 3.7 million people, freeing them to chase better jobs.

“As people get legal status they are going to be more mobile,” says Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the Brookings Institution. “There are some unauthorized immigrants who are unable to change jobs, because they don’t have proof of work eligibility. It’s difficult to quit a job and look for another one.”

Legal working papers also can give workers confidence to bargain for higher wages, Rosenblum says.

In a study of people who got new green cards, the only people who moved up the wage ladder had high skill-levels. Less than one in five do, says Laura Hill of the Public Policy Institute of California.

“It was really the high-skilled workers who were able to translate this new status into better paying jobs,” Hill says. “The lower-skilled unauthorized workers, which are the majority, were not able to make the transition.”

If that’s an indication, only those with good skills and English may be emboldened by work papers. And any change may be temporary. It would come via executive order, which means the next president could move in and press the “undo” button.

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