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No unauthorized immigrants? Workforces would struggle

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Chicago Tribune

Chicago — Abigail Alvarado has spent most of her 51/2 years in the U.S. on assembly lines preparing the frozen pizzas and packaged sandwiches shoppers find in their grocery stores.

Until recently, the 26-year-old hadn’t feared being sent from Chicago back to her native Veracruz, Mexico.

But the incoming Trump administration has her worried a crackdown is coming against people like her, working in this country without legal authorization.

She worries she or her husband, an unauthorized immigrant who works in construction and landscaping when weather permits and in factories during winter, could be detained in a workplace raid and never come home.

She worries about her 2-year-old son, Antonio, a U.S. citizen, and is considering getting him dual citizenship with Mexico, in case the family is deported.

She worries about work drying up if employers get spooked by tougher enforcement — though frankly, with most of her assembly line colleagues also unauthorized immigrants, she can’t imagine what the factories would do without their labor.

“Van a quebrar,” she said in Spanish. They will break.

Among the many unknowns about President-elect Donald Trump’s immigration agenda is what will happen to the estimated 7 or 8 million unauthorized workers who fill a variety of jobs in the U.S., and to the employers that have come to rely on their labor to keep costs down or supply skills they say they can’t find elsewhere.

Though they represent only about 5 percent of the U.S. workforce, unauthorized workers are core to some industries that could feel significant economic impact if Trump sticks to his most severe pledges about curbing illegal immigration.

Research released last year by two economics professors at the City University of New York, calculated that U.S. gross domestic product would decline by $434 billion a year, or 2.6 percent, under an extreme — if unlikely — scenario in which all 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. were deported, though certain industries and states would suffer much heavier blows.

Construction, wholesale and retail trade and, more surprisingly, financial activities also would see big GDP drops.

Though unauthorized immigrants are often associated with low-wage work, the impact on financial activities, which includes jobs in banking and insurance, indicates some are in well-paid positions that make a significant economic contribution, said study co-author Ryan Edwards.

“These are industries in which there is a high value added,” said Edwards, now a visiting associate professor at Mills College in Oakland, California. He added: “It’s not obvious that there’s an equivalent authorized worker who could replace that person.”

The study did not look at how legal workers might fill mass job openings. Edwards said employers in decimated industries might raise wages to attract U.S. workers, but in the long run he imagines most would adjust to a smaller number of workers by shrinking their business or automating.

Phillip Foss, chef-owner of the Chicago restaurant El Ideas, foresees a catastrophic fate for the restaurant industry in the event of a mass deportation.

“To be honest, the industry’s entire infrastructure would probably crumble, and it isn’t just because there won’t be cooks, bus-people, and dishwashers to work in restaurants,” Foss said. “The biggest effect will be felt in the hyperinflation with the cost of produce, since nobody will be on the farms to grow and harvest ingredients.”

Though it remains to be seen how immigration policies will take shape after Trump’s inauguration, a centerpiece of his campaign was to call out both legal and illegal immigration for depressing wages and keeping unemployment high among some Americans competing for low-wage jobs. His proposals included tightening work visa and refugee entry requirements as well as measures to block illegal immigration, including hiring more Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and building the Mexican border wall.

During his campaign Trump suggested rounding up and ejecting all unauthorized immigrants and having them apply to re-enter the country legally, but in an interview after his election he said he planned to deport criminals here illegally as his first order of business before making “a determination” on what to do with those that don’t have criminal convictions.

Alvarado, for her part, would like to stay.

To Dan Zeman, fourth-generation owner and president of Zeman Manufacturing, the crux of the issue is that only people desperate for work will endure the poor wages and conditions some employers offer.

“You need to raise the (wage) floor so that this exploitative job market doesn’t exist, an exploitative job market that only attracts undocumented immigrants,” said Zeman, whose suburban Chicago company employs 25 people and pays an average wage of $19 an hour.

But low-wage workers represent only part of the unauthorized workforce in manufacturing.

The industry also relies on many immigrants, legal and not, highly skilled in manual trades that are difficult to find in the native-born population, said Zeman, whose company makes metal tubes for products like surgical devices and seat frames.

Though Zeman’s central concern about Trump’s immigration rhetoric is what he sees as dangerous scapegoating of immigrants, he also believes finding substitutes for skilled workers in the event of an immigration crackdown could be bad for business.

“If I were to go to the unemployment rolls right now (for hiring), I think there would be a huge drop-off in the quality of work, frankly,” he said.