Column: The question is: Who are you rooting for? Two economists, two views on immigration

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez hugs Jersey Vargas, 10, inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles in 2014.
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez hugs Jersey Vargas, 10, inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles in 2014.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

I will spare you the vulgar name-calling, and also the sprinkling of atta-boys.

I got plenty of both on Sunday — and everything in between — for my column on L.A. Archbishop Jose Gomez, who believes deportation is too strong a penalty for a man who was arrested in 2013 for driving under the influence.

Aside from the specifics of that case, many readers demanded to know why I don’t write more about the cost of illegal immigration to native-born workers and taxpayers.

“Mr. Lopez, go out and meet some hurting middle-class folks,” said a reader named Dennis, and show a little concern “for tax-paying citizens who have lost everything and are hurting.”


Actually, in 42 years as a journalist, that’s a story I’ve written a few hundred times, give or take. But I don’t see a strong connection between illegal immigration and a U.S. economy marked by obscene income inequality.

Manufacturing jobs used to send kids to college and up the ladder, but that got buried under a pile of bricks, and the service economy has been a pale replacement. Global realities such as automation, the spread of technology and the endless corporate quest for cheap labor are powerful forces, and pulling back on trade could hurt more than help. I could be wrong, but I don’t think any president who promises higher wages, along with lower taxes and healthcare costs, can be trusted. Even if 11 million people get deported.

But I’m not an economist. So I called up two professors who are. Just like readers, the two scholars don’t see eye to eye. That’s actually why I chose them.

Giovanni Peri of UC Davis sees illegal immigration as a positive force on the American economy. George Borjas, of Harvard University, sees it as a drain.

Peri argues, first of all, that unauthorized workers have a far higher employment rate than native-born residents and rely much less on handouts. “They don’t have access to a lot of programs, like food stamps and unemployment,” he said.

Well, OK, but if they have a higher employment rate than native-born residents, is it because they have pushed citizens out of jobs and driven wages down?


Generally, no, said Peri. Not only do low-skilled immigrants tend to go after different jobs than natives do, but to the extent there’s overlap in the manual labor pool, the presence of immigrants drives native-born workers into higher-paying jobs where they have the competitive advantage of citizenship and language skills.

Yes, he acknowledged, those who do not make that leap can be adversely affected by illegal immigration in some regions and some work sectors. But Peri argued that without the undocumented labor force in construction, agriculture, hospitality and other fields, the gross national product would take a 3 to 4% hit. And he said those workers pay sales taxes, property taxes as part of their rent, and, often, Social Security taxes they can never collect in retirement.

OK, but what about the public cost of educating and providing healthcare for this population?

That’s an investment in future taxpayers, Peri said, and over time, the entire country will benefit.

“Wishful thinking,” said Professor Borjas, a Cuban-born immigrant who taught at UC San Diego before Harvard, and says his time in California helped shape his views on immigration.

“I lived in Del Mar, in a gated community with like 30 to 40 homes. It was very middle class and I’ll never forget neighborhood parties. … Everybody had kids, and we were the only house in the entire neighborhood that did not hire at least one illegal immigrant,” Borjas said. “We never did that. On one side of the street you had all the Americans drinking and chatting, and on the other side you had all the illegal immigrant women carrying the babies and pushing the carriages.”

Something about that scene disturbed Borjas, who saw it through the eyes of an immigrant.

“What really bothered me,” he said, “was the social separation and distance and segregation between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ ”

Those immigrants were no doubt doing better financially than they would have south of the border. But to Borjas, this was a reminder that in the economy, in globalization, in immigration, there are always going to be winners and losers.

The question in the end is, ‘Who are you rooting for?’

— George Borjas

“The question in the end is, ‘Who are you rooting for?’ ” he asked.

He’s rooting for U.S. citizens.

Borjas argues that immigration has unquestionably affected employment and wages for the native-born population. He said he believes immigrants pump about $50 billion a year into the economy, but that workers who might have had those jobs lose out. And the $50 billion infusion, he argues, is wiped out by the social costs of hosting immigrants. Also, he doesn’t buy the theory of an eventual benefit to all of society as immigrant children become more upwardly mobile.

I’m not convinced he’s right, or wrong. Or that a complicated story of human yearning can be reduced to cold calculation and economic theory. And Trump has targeted poor people of color for the sin of doing what American industry and families have encouraged them to do for decades — come north, take the hardest jobs, and work cheap.

Borjas agreed that employers benefit most from low-wage immigrants and are “laughing all the way to the bank.” He advocates electronic screening of job applicants, and fines and criminal penalties for law-breaking businesses.

He’d like to see a slowdown on immigration, pending a rational determination on how many people to legally admit each year. As for law-abiding working people already here illegally, he said deportation would lack compassion, and he advocates for visas.

So there you have it, divergent views on a divisive topic.

I stand prepared to take hits from all quarters.

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez


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