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Economy & Business

Immigration Policy May Mean Better Jobs, But Impact On Labor Unclear


President Obama's recent changes to immigration policy could mean that millions of immigrants are safe for now from the threat of deportation. It could also mean better jobs for them. The broader impact on the labor market is less certain. NPR's Jim's Zarroli has this story about what happened the last time the federal government offered legal status to large numbers of undocumented workers.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: President Obama's executive order on immigration could have a profound impact on millions of people. Margarita Soto(ph) understands that very well. Soto, who lives in Queens with her husband and children, was born in Peru. When she was two, her family went to Canada and lived there illegally for a few years. Then one day, they drove over the border into North Dakota to take up residence in the United States.

MARGARITA SOTO: I remember it as a kind of cheery, childhood trip because I didn't know. My parents didn't share their fears with me. They shared it with each other. And so they - we lived a fairly sheltered life despite the fact that we were illegal aliens, or undocumented children.

ZARROLI: The family ended up in New Jersey where her father got a job working long hours in a bakery. Soto says she never really understood the family was in the United States illegally, but certain things didn't add up. Like, when she wanted to get a job and didn't have a Social Security number.

SOTO: And I really wanted to work when I was 15 and all my 16-year-old friends were all working. And so my mom's just like well, yeah, you just make up a Social Security number. That's what you do, and so I did.

ZARROLI: Then in 1986 when she was in high school, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The bill, which was signed into law by President Reagan, allowed some 2 million undocumented workers with clean records to apply for citizenship. Sherrie Koussoudji, associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan, says it fundamentally changed their lives. Koussoudji says when most people look for jobs they consider things like pay and promotion prospects.

SHERRIE KOUSSOUDJI: An undocumented worker's going to look for a job that minimizes the risk of apprehension.

ZARROLI: The 1986 act allowed such people to look for and get better jobs.

KOUSSOUDJI: When you're undocumented, you're likely to stay in the back of the restaurant because it's a safer job, but once you have working papers, you can move to the front of the restaurant where those jobs tend to be higher-paying jobs.

ZARROLI: Koussoudji says that within a couple of years of legalization, workers were making on average 6 percent more than before. Margarita Soto's mother, Amata(ph), says the family got their documents together and went to the immigration office almost immediately.

AMATA: It was very quick and easy and there's hardly anybody in those office because people were afraid, but we went and it was so, so fast, I mean, because I said we had all the papers.

ZARROLI: Once they were approved, Soto's father was able to quit his bakery job and get a much better paying one in a factory. Soto's mother eventually went into health care.

AMATA: With the amnesty, financially we feel more secure. I went to school because I always wanted to be a nurse. And so I'm so grateful that I have Ronald Reagan in my heart. I'm so grateful.

ZARROLI: Randy Capps is with the Migration Policy Institute. He says when people no longer have to worry about deportation they can get jobs better suited to their talents. The economy becomes more productive, people make more so they can spend more.

RANDY CAPPS: Generally, economists have shown that during periods when the economy is expanding, having more people be able to enter and move up in the labor force is beneficial to everyone.

ZARROLI: But Capps says that's not so true when the economy is in recession. When jobs are scarce, legalization can depress overall wages - not by a lot, he says, but in some fields, like construction, it can have an impact.

CAPPS: To the degree that there is some competition then that could have somewhat of a negative affect. It's only going to have that effect on the least educated workers in those sectors where the unauthorized are most heavily concentrated.

ZARROLI: There's also the question of whether the president's executive order might encourage more people to cross the border illegally. Capps says it's a tough question to answer because so many different factors affect the flow of illegal immigrants, nor is it really clear how many workers will come forward to participate in President Obama's program. Unlike the 1986 act, the president's executive order is temporary and it could be reversed by another administration. A lot of immigrant families right now are hoping for the kind of second chance the Soto's got in 1986, but the move by President Obama might not be enough to give them what they're looking for. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.