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Trump’s wall ignores the economic logic of undocumented immigrant labor

A crowd gathers as Jake Metzer and fellow Donald Trump supporters wait for students to walk up to chat to them at the wall they built around the American flag on the Old Main lawn on Tuesday.
A crowd gathers as Jake Metzer and fellow Donald Trump supporters wait for students to walk up to chat to them at the wall they built around the American flag on the Old Main lawn on Tuesday. Centre Daily Times, file

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects and topics being explored at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines. The following is adapted from an article that originally appeared on The Conversation.

In the final weeks of his campaign, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has reiterated his call to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. A Pew Research survey shows his supporters are united by, perhaps more than any other issue, anti-immigrant sentiment.

My research, like that of others, sheds light on the day-to-day incentives employers have for recruiting undocumented workers. The cumulative effect of these recruitment practices, which occur in almost every geographic region of the country, is to invite large-scale migration across the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a draw that is highly resistant to our efforts to stop it. From this perspective, the origins of the current situation, in which 6.4 percent of our workforce lacks documentation, lie north of the border as much as south of it.

A preference for the undocumented

My colleagues and I have conducted research in U.S. communities where undocumented Latino immigrants live and work, including interviews with their employers. We focused on small businesses in rural Colorado and Georgia. We investigated how and why entrepreneurs in construction, landscaping and low-wage service industries began actively seeking to hire undocumented Latino immigrants starting in the mid-1990s even though immigrant workers were largely absent from these places prior to that time.

What started for many as a short-term solution to fill a labor gap turned into a preference for hiring undocumented workers. Recruitment efforts thus intensified, causing a significant growth in the Latino immigrant population in both places. In a rural Georgia county, the Latino population increased 1,760 percent between 1990 and 2010 due to the increase in these recruitment efforts by businesses involved in construction, landscaping, cleaning and food provision.

Why did businesses that rely on low-wage workers develop a preference for immigrants and particularly undocumented ones?

In interviews, employers describe the undocumented Latino immigrants they hire as among the most reliable, honest and hardworking employees they have ever had.

Most employers we interviewed began by the late 1990s to organize their businesses around the productivity and discipline offered by an undocumented immigrant workforce.

This view not only contradicts Trump’s assumptions about undocumented low-wage immigrants’ “criminal” character, it sheds light on their role in a range of economic sectors across the country. Over the past two decades, low-wage industries across the U.S. have increasingly recruited and relied on immigrant workers, many of whom lack documentation.

The economic benefits created by the presence of low-wage, undocumented immigrant workers are experienced not only by the American businesses that hire them, but also by consumers. Where our research was conducted, consumers enjoyed lower-cost housing and a range of cheaper restaurant, landscaping and cleaning services due to their presence.

The ‘ideal’ worker

People who enter the United States without documents are usually motivated by profound economic need, a need that animates them to embark on a dangerous and uncertain journey. Poverty places them in a position of vulnerability that often proves to be an asset to their U.S. employers. Eager for employment, they often accept difficult, irregular and low-paying jobs they can do without being fluent in English.

The threat of deportation adds an additional layer of insecurity and vulnerability. Undocumented residents live in fear. That applies even to those who are raising citizen children, who are gainfully employed over many years, who have no criminal record and who pay sales, property and income taxes. They live with a constant threat of deportation and a deep sense of being viewed with suspicion by some in the communities where they live. It is a suspicion often tied to racial animosity. Latino residents are frequently profiled as “illegal” — regardless of their actual legal status or nationality, a trend that affects not only labor markets but whole communities.

The combination of poverty and fear of deportation inspires most undocumented immigrants to tie themselves closely to their employers. They work hard and avoid public spaces. In the words of sociologists Jill Harrison, of University of Colorado-Boulder and Jennifer Lloyd, of University of Wisconsin-Madison, undocumented workers become “compliant workaholics” in order to survive. Employers in low-wage industries have found this disciplined, loyal and flexible workforce very attractive.

The economic power of this process is resistant to border control and physical barriers installed over the past two decades — precursors to the fantasy of an impenetrable wall. It is telling that the steady growth of the undocumented workforce between the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s happened despite a nearly constant growth of spending on border patrol, new barriers and surveillance. Only in the wake of the 2008 economic crash, which dramatically slowed recruitment processes, did the unauthorized Mexican workforce in the United State start to decline.

Trump, of course, pairs his call for a huge wall with a promise to enforce mass deportation. This is equally unrealistic in economic terms. Economists have estimated that if Trump were successful in removing all undocumented workers, our GDP would fall by 5.7 percent. This is in addition to the cost of such a deportation effort, which is estimated at requiring $400 billion in new federal spending. Finally, there is the human cost of this plan given that in 2012 4.5 million U.S. citizen children have one or more undocumented parents.

Lise Nelson is an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies and associate professor of geography at Penn State.

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