Pro-immigration group's study contends immigrants don't impact unemployment

State economist questions study's methods, but agrees with some conclusions
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Contrary to conventional wisdom -- and anti-illegal immigration rhetoric -- immigration rates have no direct effect on unemployment rates, according to a study released Tuesday.

The study was conducted by the Center for Immigration Policy, the research arm of the pro-immigration American Immigration Law Foundation. It compared rates of unemployment with immigration rates in states across the nation, and found no direct correlation.

"The level of unemployment in the U.S. is painful, sometimes scary and very difficult for those directly impacted," said Dan Siciliano, executive director of the Program in Law, Economics and Business at Stanford Law School and a research fellow for the Washington, D.C.-based center. "But the notion that immigration is causally related to unemployment belittles and questions the challenges of unemployment."

The study included legal and illegal immigration.

The center conducted the research in response to anti-illegal immigration groups blaming immigrants for high unemployment. The study's author cites unemployment rates that are about the same in the Pacific states and the East North Central states, although the rate of incoming "recent immigrants" --those arriving within the past 10 years -- is significantly higher in California than in Illinois.

"We wanted to lay out the situation and dispel these notions," said lead author and demographer Rob Paral. "We wanted to untie this knot made between immigrants and unemployment."

Mark Knold, chief economist at the Utah Department of Workforce Services questions the study itself, saying that immigration rates can not fairly be compared with unemployment rates. The reason for this is that if a family of five, for example, immigrated here, only one or two members may be seeking employment.

"The unemployment rate is dictated by those who are actively looking for work," Knold said.

However, he does agree with other pieces of the study, including the finding that an immigrant population can serve as a lubricant for a stalling economy.

The study's author say immigrant populations are inherently more mobile, which means they can move to where the jobs are.

"You're not going to round up laid-off workers in Michigan and put them on buses to agricultural fields in California," Siciliano said. "Having autoworkers picking lettuce is an absurd story."

They argue that the economy is not a club where you can kick out those you don't want -- immigrants -- to let others -- namely unemployed, U.S.-born workers -- take those positions.

One anti-illegal immigration group, Save Utah, has created a program designed to honor employers who hire only workers legally able to work in the country. A business owner signs a pledge to hire only legal workers, and the group prints a certificate to hang up. But only half a dozen businesses have signed up since it launched earlier this year.

In Utah, the 2008 employment rate was 3.5 percent for the whole population, but there was a large difference between whites and Latinos -- 3.3 percent versus 5.3 percent, respectively.

Knold says that illegal immigration increases because the economy demands it, and immigration tapers off in economic downtimes.

"We're not letting them come in legally in the volume that the economy is asking in the labor force, but there are side benefits. They are mobile and transitory, and they don't tend to stay in an area and weigh upon the social and economic costs in terms of unemployment and other benefits."

What the study says

The study says there is no correlation between rates of unemployment and immigration.

California, for example, has much higher immigration rate than Illinois, but the unemployment rate is about the same.

Utah economist discounts the comparison, but agrees that immigrant workers can help ease a sputtering economy because the workforce is mobile and moves to where the demand is.