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The Wages Of Change

Benefits And Costs Of Immigration Prove Hard To Measure

May 12, 2006
By RITU KALRA And MARK SPENCER, Courant Staff Writers

Beth Cheney's rusty Spanish comes in handy at Windham Community Memorial Hospital's prenatal clinic, where 97 percent of the patients are undocumented immigrants.

But communication becomes an almost insurmountable obstacle with some patients from rural Mexico or Guatemala now living in Willimantic, who speak only indigenous languages such as Quiche and Cakchiquel.

One young patient recently had an emergency delivery of a baby, a breech birth.

"My heart was aching for this woman," Cheney said. "She did not understand that after her baby was delivered it would not live."

There are other obstacles as well. Every few weeks, Cheney's colleague drives out to the farms that surround Willimantic, urging the immigrants working the fields to stop in at the hospital's state-funded breast and cervical cancer screening center. Getting them to take time off from productive work to address personal health concerns is proving difficult.

Large numbers of those agricultural workers are illegal, officials believe. And so, like countless towns across the United States, this small city of 16,000 is absorbing the rising presence of undocumented, mostly Latin American immigrants in multiple ways -- for better and worse.

Although local officials don't know exactly how much these and other programs used by immigrants cost, the estimated tally runs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition to health care, the services include plans by the school system to offer English classes for the large numbers of workers in their late teens on the surrounding farms.

But the largely undocumented workers the programs serve, say town officials, are invaluable. They provide an inexpensive, ready workforce for Willimantic's surrounding agricultural industry.

"It certainly is a big economic benefit to employers who need a big pool of cheap labor," said Don Muirhead, executive administrator of the town of Windham.

And the immigrant community - a mix of legal and illegal residents - has pumped new blood into the city's center by opening businesses that cater to the area's growing Hispanic population.

The economic questions raised by their presence, in Willimantic and elsewhere, have no ready answers. Do illegal immigrants take work from American citizens and suppress wages? Or do they boost the economy, their cheap labor inflating the lifestyle that Americans have come to think of as a birthright?

Do they burden social services without paying their fair share of taxes? For that matter, are public services, especially for children, a drain on taxpayers or a wise investment?

The issue has galvanized the nation throughout its history. Over recent months it has polarized the country, with Congress debating proposals that take starkly different approaches. One measure would deport the estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country. Another, which advanced in the Senate Thursday, would provide many of them a way to eventually become citizens.

In the heat of the debate, the numbers are impossible to pin down. Studies on the costs and benefits of illegal immigration reach conclusions that vary widely, and can seem based as much on pre-existing ideology as objective analysis.

One thing that is clear is illegal immigration is indelibly changing the landscape - even in states such as Connecticut, where until recently the issue only registered as a blip on the screen. Now, places as small as Willimantic have to grapple with an issue that Michael Paulhus, Windham's first selectman, acknowledges is "tough to get your arms around."

Elusive Numbers

The numbers quandary begins with the dilemma of determining how many undocumented immigrants are actually here.

The Pew Hispanic Center in Washington recently estimated between 70,000 and 100,000 live in Connecticut, half of all immigrants in the state. But figuring out where is difficult.

Until about five years ago, most of the undocumented were in Fairfield Country. Since then, they have fanned out across the state following family and friends in search of work and low-cost housing, establishing small enclaves in many cities and towns.

Willimantic was ahead of the curve. In many ways it fits the classic profile of an area that attracts immigrants. It has an urban center that offers housing and safety in numbers, and nearby businesses that need cheap, unskilled labor.

The city's official population figures, though small, are compelling. Between 1990 and 2000, Willimantic's population grew by 7.3 percent, according to census data. The number of Mexicans in Willimantic over that period jumped from 257 in 1990 to 902 a decade later, according to an analysis by Daniel W. Vasquez, a research associate at the University of Massachusetts. There were also almost 300 people from Central and South America and other Latin countries in 2000, up from 60 a decade earlier.

Almost everyone in town agrees that the census dramatically underestimated the number of immigrants six years ago. And, said Muirhead, "it has grown since then."

Nationwide, virtually all the costs associated with undocumented workers are borne, ultimately, by taxpayers. Education and health care are two of the largest slices of that tab. Emergency treatment for unauthorized immigrants cost $2.2 billion in 2002, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates stricter immigration policy. Spending on free lunches for children of illegal immigrants cost another $1.9 billion, according to the group's research, and federal aid to schools cost $1.4 billion.

Connecticut keeps no such figures on school and health care spending. But the state does run federally funded programs for the children of migrant laborers, many of whom are undocumented.

Ironically, Windham's decades-old program for children of migrant workers is shrinking because of the changing nature of immigration enforcement. As recently as three years ago, 240 students were enrolled in the district's program. The federal grant for Windham and eastern Connecticut was about $300,000, according to Bill Stover, the program's director.

Student enrollment in the program is now half its level from 2003, in part because stricter border enforcement has made it harder for undocumented immigrants to go home with confidence they can return for the next season.

"More and more people are staying," Stover said - which means they are permanent, not migrant, so their children no longer qualify for the program and are on the state's tab instead.

At Windham Community Memorial Hospital's prenatal clinic, Beth Cheney is virtually a one-woman show. Since 2003, the clinic's caseload has grown while its funding and staff have been slashed. Half-written grant proposals now compete with patients for her attention.

The language and cultural barriers are tricky but navigable, Cheney said. Barriers of class, however, sometimes feel overwhelming.

"If it's a choice between putting bread on the table and taking care of their breast lump, they're going to put bread on the table," Cheney said. "That's the piece I can never transcend. I can relate to them as a mother, I can talk to them about the birthing process, but there's a big barrier between what their lives are like and mine."

The costs of running the clinic are spread across the hospital, which spent a total of $1.6 million per year in 2005 and 2004 in what it calls "charity care," a 60 percent jump from 2003.

The hospital cannot break the figures down for illegal residents because it does not ask patients about their immigration status - highlighting one of the difficulties in pinning down the numbers.

Wage Worries

Two-thirds of unauthorized immigrants lack a high school diploma. Those who have higher education often find themselves shut out of the skilled labor force.

So the 11 million to 12 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. compete directly with the 10.4 million American workers who never completed high school.

What's unclear is how much all the job-for-job competition drives down wages. One national study found the hit on wages to be 7.4 percent for native-born high school dropouts, or $1,850 for a group that earned an average of $25,000 a year in 2000.

But research that focused on cities with high concentrations of illegal immigration found a much smaller impact, closer to 1 percent. When groups of undocumented immigrants congregate in one area, it turns out, they largely compete against one another.

The effect on wages also depends on the health of the economy. The late 1990s posted the largest influx of immigration on record, both legal and illegal, yet the wages of low-wage workers rose more than they had in 30 years. The reason is basic economics: Yes, the supply of labor had expanded, but demand from employers outpaced the supply.

In the long run, economists say, reduced wages for low-skilled workers are offset by gains to employers, and the savings are passed down to the rest of the country in the form of lower prices for goods in industries such as construction and agriculture that have high concentrations of undocumented workers.

Research from MIT economist Patricia Cortes shows that a 10 percent increase in the share of low-skilled immigrants in the labor force reduced the price of "immigrant-sensitive" services such as housekeeping and gardening by 1.3 percent.

Overall, the numbers are not dramatic. The low-skilled immigration wave of the 1990s increased the buying power of high-skilled natives living in the 25 largest cities by 0.65 percent, Cortes' research shows, but squeezed the buying power of native high school dropouts by 2.66 percent.

Add to those findings this wrinkle: The primary losers, those without a high school diploma, make up just 10 percent of the U.S. labor force. So even if their income is squeezed, the total affect on the economy is likely small.

Another hidden bonus is that many illegal workers share illegitimately obtained Social Security numbers with dozens of workers across the country, each paying federal, state and local taxes on their wages. But because their papers are falsified, they can't collect Social Security payments after they retire, or obtain Medicare coverage. Many don't even claim their tax refunds, according to researchers.

"They pay into the system," said Windham's Muirhead, "without reaping the benefits."

Out On The Farms

Most employers who hire immigrants insist that they are following the law by requiring workers to fill out an Employment Eligibility Verification form and provide proper identification.

But there are only minimal requirements to check the validity of the documents. Laws that prohibit discrimination prevent employers from singling out workers for random checks. According to guidelines from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, employers must accept documents "if they reasonably appear on their face to be genuine and relate to the person presenting them."

Business and government leaders acknowledge that forged papers are common.

"We have to verify Social Security numbers, so as far as I'm informed, they're all documented," said Wilhelm Meyha, whose Franklin Farms employs 380 workers in Franklin. "But you know, there are fake documents out there."

Meyha's mushroom farm is slated to move production out of the Willimantic area to Pennsylvania in June as part of a new contract deal unrelated to the quality of the workforce. Still, the 23-year old farm wouldn't have lasted as long as it has in the state without immigrant labor, Meyha said.

"We tried to hire American workers here when we first opened the plant. The turnover rate was just astonishing. You couldn't run a business. It was impossible," said Meyha, himself an immigrant from Austria.

Prides Corner Farms, which produces landscaping plants and roses on about 500 acres, is the largest employer in nearby Lebanon. It has 500 full-time and seasonal workers, including a significant number of Mexicans and Guatemalans - all of whom are hired after providing the required documents, according to owner Mark Sellew.

"I check them and there's no reason at all for me to believe they are fake," he said.

Sellew also praises the work ethic of his immigrant employees, who, he said, have helped his business grow from $12 million in annual sales 10 years ago to $30 million today. The growth has meant he spends more in eastern Connecticut - on trucks, tractors, gas and other goods - and has created higher-end jobs - such as accountants, salespeople and mechanics - that appeal to native-born workers.

The pace at the 28-year-old farm is intense in April and May, its busiest months, with 40 tractor-trailers leaving daily with $500,000 worth of products for nurseries in 20 states. Employees who load trucks, move heavy plants and do other labor-intensive work earn at least minimum wage, with some who have supervisory responsibility earning up to $12 an hour.

"Having a great supply of those workers allows us to grow our business and add more skilled personnel," said Sellew, a Republican who is outraged at conservatives in the party who want to deport undocumented immigrants. He has traveled to Washington to express that opinion to the Connecticut congressional delegation.

"What I'd like to tell America is we don't raise our children to pick tomatoes and pot rhododendrons," Sellew said. "But those jobs still need to be done in America."

Downtown's Latin Flavor

For Muirhead, Windham's executive administrator, the town itself emerges a winner in the debate. As evidence, he points to businesses such as Pan del Sinai, a downtown bakery owned by a Nicaraguan and Guatemalan couple.

"It brings more life into downtown," he said.

Paulhus, Windham's first selectman, sees Willimantic's latest crop of immigrants as part of a long history of newcomers, and believes they are an important part of the town's growth.

"Everybody is pursuing the American Dream, which is alive and well in Willimantic," he said. "Diversity is something we're proud of."

At Windham High School, immigration presents challenges, but students say they are also moved by their fellow students' work ethic.

"They pay attention. They take it as a privilege, because when they come here school's free, lunch is free. It's good," said Matthew Figueroa, a 17-year old student at Windham High School who describes his grades as "marginally passing."

"Sometimes it motivates me. It's a slap in the face of reality, you know, like, `Get your work done. This isn't a game.'"

Still, there are tensions. Art Brassaw owns Video City Rentals at 14 Walnut St., just off Main Street. So many of his customers are from Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica that he has started to learn Spanish.

He acknowledges that immigrants help support local businesses, but said many property owners in town don't think they shoulder their fair share of taxes.

"I think the two biggest burdens are on the school system and the health system," he said.

Cheney, who runs the hospital's prenatal clinic, is familiar with that complaint. But she sees the expense as an investment. She would hate to allow political views to get in the way.

"It's sort of like cutting off our nose to spite our face," she said.

Political views, however, matter - especially because the economic picture suggests illegal immigration is largely a wash.

"It's a tradeoff," said Georges Vernez, director of the Center for Research on Immigration Policy at the RAND Corp. "What is the net in this? It really is a question of where you stand and what your ideology is, whether you're among the winners or among the losers."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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