Report suggests immigrants boost economy

James Nobles
Minnesota Legislative Auditor James Nobles says the analysis of immigrants in Minnesota does not offer any simple answers.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

This report differs from the usual work of the Office of the Legislative Auditor; there's no evaluation of a government agency or program. There's no new research. Instead, the OLA reviewed and summarized existing studies on the economic impact of immigrants.

Legislative Auditor James Nobles says the analysis does not offer any simple answers.

"There are both positive and negative impacts. There are winners and losers. But there are also subtleties and qualifiers to virtually every conclusion that can be drawn," he said.

The OLA report says immigration -- both legal and illegal -- may reduce the wages of some workers born in the U.S. But researcher Joel Alter says immigrants also help keep prices down by working for lower wages. He says they also help create other jobs, some of them with higher wages.

"For example, if we have an influx of people into the lower-skilled types of jobs and occupations, there will certainly be a demand for people who can manage and supervise and train those types of workers in the workplace," Alter said.

Census figures from 2000 show that immigrants, which were defined as U.S. residents born in another country, comprised 5 percent of the population in Minnesota. But exact numbers of legal or illegal immigrants are hard to pin down.

The Legislative Auditor's report makes no specific recommendations to lawmakers. DFL Sen. Ann Rest of New Hope says it doesn't offer startling conclusions either. Still, Rest says the information is valuable.

"I think it does give the governor, as well as legislators, more information on which to plan for the future and react to what's coming from the federal government we hope shortly," she said.

A report released last December by Gov. Tim Pawlenty stated up to 85,000 illegal immigrants were costing the state as much as $188 million a year. Pawlenty used the report as a launching point for several recommendations aimed at encouraging legal immigration and cracking down on illegal immigration.

The Legislative Auditor says the number illegal immigrants is not known, and that earlier report didn't include the state revenues generated by illegal immigrants.

Brian McClung, the governor's spokesman, says illegal immigration still needs to be addressed

"Regardless of what the exact number is, it's clear that illegal immigration has a cost impact to our health care systems, to our education systems and other parts of state government. And I thinks this is something that will continue to be debated both on the state and federal level," he said.

State lawmakers did little this year to address immigration. But big changes are pending at the federal level. The U.S. Senate has just passed sweeping immigration legislation.

Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota says the immigration system is broken and must be fixed.

"We clearly have a lot of folks who are here illegally. We have to figure out who they are. We have to get them paying taxes. We need to make sure they're learning English. We have to make sure they're out of the shadows and being part of a society in which we know where they're working and that they have jobs. And if they don't have jobs, we have to deal with it," Coleman said.

Coleman supports stronger border security, strict immigration enforcement and a guest-worker program.

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