Immigrants Benefit Economy, Meeting Told : Employment Rate Is High Despite Influx of Foreign Labor

Times Staff Writer

Mexican immigrant families in Orange County receive more in public services than they pay in taxes, but their presence contributes to a healthy economy, a top Washington, D.C.-based researcher said Friday in a Cal State Fullerton conference on U.S. immigration policy.

"Mexican immigrant families do pay less in taxes than they receive in services, but the fact is that they also earn less wages," said Thomas Muller, senior research associate for the Urban Institute, a private, nonpartisan research group.

Muller told an audience of 100 at the conference that as more immigrants compete for low-paying jobs they "push" other workers upward into better and higher-paying jobs.

Accepting Lower Wages

"With immigrants accepting wages that are lower, it allows a surplus to develop, which is shifted to non-immigrants. Overall, these immigrants contribute more than they take," he said.

The conference attracted government officials, college professors, members of the clergy and community activists to the Fullerton campus. An abbreviated version of the meeting will be presented in Spanish today at St. Anne's Catholic Church, Santa Ana.

Isacc Cardenas, a Chicano-studies professor who helped organize the conference, said it was intended as an academic forum to further understanding of U.S. immigration policy. Also, he said, it served "as a step in developing local immigration policy."

Muller's comments paralleled the report of a recent Southern California Assn. of Governments study, which found that the county's minority population grew three times faster than the number of whites between 1970 and 1980.

Muller noted that California has absorbed several million immigrants in the last 20 years, but that, at the same time, "non-immigrant per capita income has risen," not declined.

County's High Employment

Muller pointed to Orange County's usually high employment rate as an indication that immigrants compete with other immigrants for jobs on the bottom of the economic ladder. "It means that non-immigrants no longer have to take these jobs," he added.

The county's 4.3% unemployment rate in January shows, Muller said, "that despite thousands of immigrants--legal, illegal and of different ethnic backgrounds," people still continued to find jobs.

"The most serious problem facing Mexicans and Mexican-Americans today is the insufficient number who finish high school and college," Muller said. "One does not want to see a large group of low-paid, low-skilled workers perpetuating another generation of the same."

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