Emory Report
March 3, 2008
Volume 60, Number 22


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March 3, 2008
Illegal workers have advantage of mobility

C. Monica Capra is an assistant professor of economics. She is also affiliated with the Latin American Studies Program and the Institute for Human Rights at Emory.

Many believe that legal immigration is good, but illegal immigration is bad. Is this true?

From an economic perspective, the optimal immigration policy would admit foreign workers who are in short supply and who do not drain public finances; that is, people who work in areas such as science and engineering, and also in areas such as food preparation, construction and cleaning.

However, the current system of assigning visas does not prioritize admission to people whose labor is in short supply; about two thirds of all legal immigrants are admitted through family reunification. The skills that these people bring do not necessarily match the skills most in demand.

The current way of distributing skill-based visas does not respond to market forces; for example, quotas did not adjust to the changes in demand during the technology boom of the 1990s. Moreover, because skilled-based legal workers cannot easily change jobs once in the U.S., they are limited in their ability to respond to changes in labor demand.

Unlike their legal counterparts, illegal immigrants are more able to respond to economic conditions.
When the U.S. economy is expanding relative to Mexico, there is an increase in attempts to cross the border, which means that illegal workers enter when they are needed.

Illegal immigrants are also more mobile once in the U.S. For example, the recent high economic growth in the Southeast has been accompanied with a high influx of Hispanic immigrants, many illegal. In Georgia, the Hispanic population grew by 300 percent between 1990 and 2000.

With respect to public finances, the data suggest that immigrants generate a negligible fiscal burden. Overall, from an economic perspective, legal immigration is not as good as we thought, and illegal immigration is better than we thought.