Recession puts undocumented worker issue on back burner

It's off the radar screen for now, given the U.S. recession and the dearth of job openings in the states, but the debate over the nation's undocumented workers and illegal immigrants is likely to heat up once the recovery starts. More important, it's one issue that Americans will have to arrive at a consensus on for the nation to have any chance to pass a coherent, constructive public policy.

As investors might sense, right now the nation's stance and policy in practice toward undocumented workers is incoherent. Many conservative, moderate Americans -- as well as most labor unions -- oppose the entry of undocumented workers to the United States because they have illegally bypassed the federal immigration system and because their presence decreases wages in numerous job segments.
Now, one would think that the above would be enough to propel federal policy change, or at least inspire rigorous enforcement of existing laws prohibiting the hire of undocumented workers. The natural, obvious move would simply be to deport people who are here illegally or who have violated immigration law.

And yet...

As lobbyists often say in Washington, "Sorry, but it doesn't work that way.''' The trouble is that hundreds of thousands of U.S. businesses small and large hire undocumented workers - they illegally employ people who are not supposed to be in the country. According to data compiled by immigrationcounters.com there are currently about 22 million illegal immigrants in the US, with the workers in this group forming a vast "invisible economy."

Businesses hiring undocumented workers say they are simply employing people in jobs that American citizens will not do. Labor unions and other interest groups differ, saying that these businesses are hiring undocumented workers because they know the undocumented workers will accept a lower wage - a free market condition that depresses wages. These groups also say businesses can use undocumented workers to illegally bypass income taxes, Social Security payments, and legally-required benefits.

While this is a heated issue that has inspired passionate debate on both sides, the recessionary tumble of the past few months has pushed it to the back burner in Washington. Many undocumented workers, particularly in the severely slumping Southwest, West, and Florida regions, have simply left the country because the jobs they were holding were eliminated due to recession cutbacks, and they couldn't find other work.

The experience of one Westchester County, NY valet parking operator is representative. He told DailyFinance that an undocumented worker who served as a parking attendant returned to Mexico because he was laid off at his day-time job in construction; the worker could not find comparable work due to the region's slumping housing market, so he resigned from the night-time parking attendant job and moved back home.

For the time being, most of the pressure is off the undocumented worker/illegal immigrant and jobs issue: there's little to battle about regarding jobs because there are considerably fewer job vacancies, and because many undocumented workers have simply returned to their home countries.

Still, as soon as job growth resumes in the US, look for the issue to heat up again. For the issue to be successfully resolved, the nation has to commit one way or the other. One option would be for the country to allow undocumented workers to work, collect taxes and all other fees from them, and enable them to transition to full citizen status over time; alternately, it could impose large federal fines and assess other civil charges against any business of individual who hires or otherwise uses someone who is not supposed to be in the country. Either way, nature abhors a vacuum, and America's immigration policy will, sooner or later, have to be filled with a solution of some sort.

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