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Are Immigrant Workers Underpaid?

A sign in Mexico points toward the United States.
Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images
Getty Images
A sign in Mexico points toward the United States.

Former Sen. John Edwards (NC) spoke at length about how immigrant workers are underpaid and taken advantage of, something no one doubts.

At the same time, a good many illegal immigrants are paid market wages that are well above minimum wage, and studies show that more than half are paid on the books, with taxes taken out. Illegal immigrants are thought to contribute around $7 billion each year to the Social Security fund — money they are not eligible to take out when they retire.

Sen. Joe Biden (DE) mixed up some numbers, stating that 60 percent of illegal immigrants in the U.S. are non-Spanish speaking and have overstayed their visas. In fact, 60 percent of the undocumented population is believed to have crossed a border illegally; an estimated 40 percent came on legal visas and overstayed them.

And Biden was not quite right when he said that 60 percent of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. are non-Spanish speaking. A Pew Hispanic Center report from 2005 found that 60 percent of all the foreign-born in the U.S. are indeed non-Hispanic, but that includes legal immigrants as well. Other Pew reports — as All Things Considered host Robert Siegel pointed out — say that more than half of recently arrived illegal immigrants are coming from Mexico and some 20 percent more from other parts of Latin America.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (NY) noted it would be impractical to deport all 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the U.S. — a statement that even some veterans of the immigration agency agree with. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has been chronically underfunded and understaffed.

While there have been significant increases in manpower under the Bush administration, it still amounts to a drop in the bucket: The immigration agency has just 6,000 officers charged with tracking down 12 million illegal immigrants.

The candidates debated how much and whether illegal immigrants drive down wages, and Edwards noted that studies on the issue are contradictory and confusing.

That is true, but on the whole, studies do agree on this: The main groups hurt by illegal immigrants are uneducated Americans and, ironically, legal immigrants, who compete for low-wage jobs. A number of studies, notably by George Borjas of Harvard University, have found that illegal immigrants drive down wages for this group by 3 percent to 7 percent.

For everyone else, having undocumented workers in the marketplace seems to be either a wash or a slight gain. Some economists note that while immigrants increase the supply of labor, they also increase demand for everything from televisions to rental apartments.

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Jennifer Ludden
NPR National Correspondent Jennifer Ludden covers economic inequality, exploring systemic disparities in housing, food insecurity and wealth. She seeks to explain the growing gap between socio-economic groups, and government policies to try and change it.