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Undocumented Migrants Hurt American Economy, Or Do They?

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In 2007, when the immigration debate was in full swing, my colleagues, Political Scientists Paul Harris and William Baker, and Sociologist Cameron Lippard, and I designed a study to examine the lived experiences of 127 undocumented (49%) and documented (51%) Spanish-speaking immigrants. How would the lives of the two groups differ in terms of discrimination and access to resources, if they were matched on age, gender, and time in the United States? 

Our study, titled "One Day on the Red Hills of Georgia": The Effects of Immigration Status on Latino Migrants' Experience of Discrimination, Utilization of Public Services, and Attitudes toward Acculturation" just got published in the journal NorteAmerica. See full article. Below is an excerpt of the findings and interpretive remarks.


Undocumented migrants reported significantly less education, lower income, and less access to health and other services, which is consistent with past research documenting these inequities (e.g., Coffey, 2005; Passel and Cohn, 2009). Undocumented migrants were also less likely than their documented counterparts to have a bank account and more likely to have trouble meeting basic family needs, such as feeding and clothing children.

While no significant differences emerged for frequency of reported discrimination, our findings also showed significant structural barriers for those with undocumented status, including in the percent of respondents reporting discrimination when seeking employment, when trying to obtain a loan and when purchasing a home.  Because of the subjective nature of self-reports of discrimination (i.e., apart from individual differences, the same behavior may be perceived as discriminatory by some groups and not by others). For this reason, these findings should be interpreted with caution and care.  However, they do suggest that those with undocumented status are more likely to face considerable obstacles in these domains, likely due to both legal barriers and prejudice.

warning signIn this regard, it is worth emphasizing that, despite the widespread belief that low-skilled immigrants depress wages and increase unemployment, as in the 1980s, economists have found that not only does immigration generally has a small but positive increase on the wages of even low-skilled native-born workers (Shierholz, 2010), but that the legalization of undocumented workers did not affect the wages of native workers, regardless of whether they were white or of Mexican origin (Sorensen & Bean, 1994).  These new data are so compelling that a recent New York Times article concluded that "nearly all economists, of all political persuasions, agree that immigrants -- those here legally or not -- benefit the overall economy" (Davidson, 2013).

Similarly, respondents with undocumented status also report having less access to health and banking services and more negative experiences with these services when they are utilized. Since all non-emergency health services are legally denied to those with undocumented status, these differences in utilization of health services are unsurprising. They are, however, still noteworthy, since preventive prenatal and dental care are not only both associated with better infant and adult health but also likely with considerable long-term cost savings. Considering that, as we reported earlier, an average undocumented family in Georgia is estimated to contribute approximately $2400 in state and local sales, income, and property taxes (Coffey, 2005; West, 2010), the economic viability of making limited non-emergency health services available for those without documentation should be studied and considered.

The reluctance of our respondents to access law enforcement services is understandable but is also a cause for concern in community public safety.  Needs for police services will only increase as Spanish speaking populations grow in the various neighborhoods.  If community policing is to be viable (a philosophical approach that we endorse), then local public policy will need to find ways to incorporate immigrants and build trust in immigrant communities.

In spite of state laws such as the 2006 Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act, which represented the toughest state laws against unauthorized immigrants up to that point to curb unauthorized migration (Lippard & Gallagher, 2011), high birth rates and continued migration from Latin America mean that the number of immigrants making Georgia their destination is likely to continue.  "The U.S. is in tough economic times, but Mexico is in worse economic times.  There are areas of deep, deep poverty in Mexico" notes University of Georgia demographer Doug Bachtel, "migrants are looking for a better life for their kids.  They are really go getters, willing to work long hours, and they take jobs a lot of Americans don't want." (cited in Witman, 2013). 

Legal questions aside, this study also provides some perspective on the ongoing debate regarding the existential situation of undocumented immigrants. Specifically, activists on both sides of the debate have described this group as "living in the shadows". As befitting of their image, the shadows are complex and ambiguous places. To the progressives, "the shadows" are where the undocumented are harassed by overzealous law enforcement officers, exploited by unethical employers, and denied access to not only government services but also to American institutions and identities.  At the same time, political conservatives use "the shadows" to refer to places where the undocumented sneakily use public services to which they are not entitled and engage in a variety of illicit activities and crimes (Skerry, 2013).

While we did not collect data on illegal activity, our findings suggest, much as Skerry did, that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Undocumented immigrants, like their documented counterparts, often live with family members who have documentation. They avoid law enforcement when possible, use emergency health services when necessary, and contribute to the workforce, often doing unskilled labor. At the same time, they understandably under-utilize health and banking services and are more likely to experience difficulty in obtaining employment, qualifying for a loan, and purchasing a home. Despite this, the vast majority orient themselves toward becoming either a hyphenated American or as American as possible. While some intend to return to their country of origin and retain a shadowy existence in the meantime, others, like their documented counterparts, have embraced the American dream and live in relative openness and with at least some meaningful contact with American institutions and culture.

In conclusion, we contend that even though Americans in general and Georgian citizens in particular have socially constructed a difference between documented and undocumented immigrants, stigmatizing the undocumented as a culturally alien group uninterested in acculturation, our findings suggest that there are few real differences in their backgrounds, desires, identities, and even experiences with discrimination following migration.  Moreover, as discussed earlier, the data fail to support the popular belief that undocumented immigrants either exert a downward pressure on wages or are a net drain on tax revenues (Lipman, 2006). These findings have important policy implications, especially with immigration reform a likely focus of the current presidential administration. On the basis of these findings and the broad literature base, lawmakers should feel confident that neither the U.S. economy nor the nation's social fabric would be harmed by amnesty for undocumented individuals currently in the United States. To the contrary, the data suggest that immigrants, including the undocumented, comprise an essential part of U.S. families, workplaces and communities and are likely to continue to do so in the foreseeable future (Immigration Policy Center, 2009).


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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity and courses on restorative justice.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the outcomes associated with restorative responses via Conflict 180.

In addition to conflict and restorative (more...)

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