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The Slippery Process of Counting Immigrant Jobs

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Most economists agree that illegal immigration does not hurt the vast majority of U.S. workers. It's only when you zero in and look at very low-skill or very high-skill workers, that there's an impact. NPR's Chris Arnold reports on some industries where the effect of illegal immigration is the greatest.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

A crew of illegal workers is using saws and nail guns to install a wood floor in a suburb outside Boston. In recent years, a lot of Brazilians have been illegally streaming into the country and getting into the wood floor installation and sanding business.

(Soundbite of construction sounds)

IGOR (Brazilian Immigrant): My name is Igor. I'm from Brazil, and I'm here in America about two years and a half.

ARNOLD: 24-year-old Igor followed his father here, as did his mother and two brothers. He says they're all here illegally. Igor hasn't seen his wife and young son, who are still back in Brazil, for years, but he says the $10 to $12 an hour he makes here is big money for him to send home.

(Soundbite of construction sounds)

ARNOLD: A mile away, over in a Home Depot parking lot, 47-year-old Joe Randolph is taking a lunch break in his work van, which is a bit beat up from years of having power sanders and other tools clanking around in it. Randolph's been in this business for 30 years, and he's well aware of all the Brazilian and South Asian immigrants who've gotten into it too, because he sees them driving around in their vans.

Mr. JOE RANDOLPH (Contractor): You know, when you're driving down, up and down the highway, and you've had a look at these guys next to you, they all, they start screaming and...

ARNOLD: Randolph says the immigrants taunt him in Portuguese or Vietnamese but he understands what they're saying when they give him the finger out of their truck window.

Mr. RANDOLPH: They give you the bird all the time, you know what I mean? Everybody knows what the bird is. (LAUGH)

ARNOLD: Randolph laughs but he says it's not funny when he pulls up to a house to bid on a job and sees a Brazilian or Vietnamese guy's truck at the same house.

Mr. RANDOLPH: You want to do an estimate and one guy's already there giving an estimate, and then you come in to do an estimate. I'll just turn around and walk away. I don't want to do the job.

ARNOLD: Well Randolph says he walks away because odds are he won't get the job. Randolph charges a buck twenty-five to a $1.50 a square foot to sand and refinish a floor. He says recent immigrants will do the work for 80 cents a square foot, undercutting him by almost half.

Mr. RANDOLPH: When they're coming to this country and they're not here you know legally, they're just taking jobs from our children, from us. It's pretty bad you know.

ARNOLD: But how much do illegals really hurt you as workers? Economists say, on average, not very much. They say immigrants, illegal and legal together, push down wages for the lowest skilled workers by less than five percent. And for most higher wageworkers, there's no negative impact at all. In part, that's because all this cheap labor stimulates more business. For example, if a lot of immigrants get into house cleaning or gardening or nannying and lower the price of those services, a lot more people will hire house cleaners, gardeners and nannies, or in this case, floor sanders.

Mr. ANDREW CHASON(ph) (Owner, Father and Son Floor Craft Store): There is more work all around to go around.

ARNOLD: Andrew Chason owns the Father and Son Floor Craft Store. He contracts out jobs to both American and immigrant work crews all over Boston.

Mr. CHASON: There's not just one kind of customer. There's plenty of people that have, for instance, rental property that don't need to have a real high quality job and they're mostly concerned with the price.

ARNOLD: So Chason says more landlords will redo their floors if they can get a deal. But he says he sees plenty of higher end work for the often more skilled American workers. Some in the floor sanding business say there are just too many immigrants getting into this one line of work.

(Soundbite of floor sander)

ARNOLD: Inside a $2 million home in a wealthy suburb, Gerard O'Connor and his three or four workers, including his two sons, are sanding and refinishing the house's old oak floors.

Mr. GERARD O'CONNOR (Floor Sander): The bag is getting full, like, and there's only so much you can take.

ARNOLD: O'Connor's not talking about his sawdust bag, he's talking about illegal Brazilian workers. He says there's some higher end work like this where he's not directly competing with immigrants, but still about half his jobs come from people who want the best price. Back in the late eighties, the Vietnamese were flooding the labor market and charging half the going rate.

Mr. O'CONNOR: It almost put me out of business. There was no way of competing with that.

ARNOLD: O'Connor says back then he had to lay off all his workers and start over. Now he's worried about the housing market cooling off and all the new Brazilian immigrants. He says already his phone is ringing half as often, and he's had to cut his prices by 10 percent. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.

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