Ithaca, N.Y. — President Barack Obama’s recently announced executive action is expected to give millions of undocumented immigrants the ability to work legally in the United States.

Why I shop downtown — Marty

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Thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Ithaca area stand to benefit, said Cornell professor Stephen Yale-Loehr. Those people will now be eligible for hire and cease to live in constant, paralyzing fear of deportation, experts say.

That question isn’t up for debate. But here’s another, perhaps more difficult one: How will the influx of newly legalized workers affect low-wage employees already in Ithaca and the surrounding areas?

The answer to that, it seems, depends on who you ask.

We talked to a handful of experts in the debate for their views. Pop over to our Facebook page to let us know about yours.

Related: As President Obama acts on immigration, Ithaca leader prepares for unknown impact

Obama speaks on immigration. Photo courtesy of the White House.

1 – Conservative thinker: Obama’s actions will hurt low-wage workers

Imagine you’re a dishwasher at Cornell. That’s a job that can’t be outsourced, and — given that Cornell obeys the law — can currently only be given to fully authorized U.S. workers.

If Obama’s executive action is implemented, says a spokesperson with the conservative-leaning Federation for American Immigration Reform, Cornell dishwashers will suddenly face a raft of new competition.

“It adds to the pool of workers who will be affected by illegal immigration,” says Ira Mehlman, the FAIR spokesperson.

“There will be more workers competing for your job, and it puts your employer at a greater advantage vis a vis the workers.”

Competition means less bargaining power for low-wage American workers, Mehlman says. Mehlman says that will translate into lower wage — and, ultimately, more Americans dropping out of the workforce altogether

“If you’re working at Cornell in any job, that is now going to be open to people who get amnesty,” Mehlman said.

“Until now the illegal aliens have been relegated to a small number of employers who violate the law. … If the president’s plan is implemented a much wider swath of American workers will be affected by illegal immigration.”

That will hurt those Americans at the bottom end of the wage scale, Mehlman says.

2 – Cornell professor: No empirical evidence either way

Nationally cited immigration expert and Cornell professor Stephen Yale-Loehr said that he doesn’t believe there is “any empirical evidence one way or the other on whether immigrants who get temporary work permits through the President’s new executive actions will hurt low-wage U.S. workers.”

The problem with stating that the executive action will hurt “native” workers, Yale-Loehr said, is simple: Nobody can really back up that claim.

“Those who claim such an effect are just speculating without any evidence,” he said.

In a previous interview with The Voice in November, Yale-Loehr spoke positively about some aspects of the new rules and said they were likely to help the US economy at a “macro level” and spur growth.

As for the effect on local low-wage workers, Yale-Loehr pointed to a 2006 New York Times article by Roger Lowenstein that tried to sort through conflicting information.

One section says that adding more people to an economy can’t hurt it:

“As (economist David) Card likes to say, “The demand curve also shifts out.” It’s jargon, but it’s profound. New workers add to the supply of labor, but since they consume products and services, they add to the demand for it as well. “Just because Los Angeles is bigger than Bakersfield doesn’t mean L.A. has more unemployed than Bakersfield,” Card observes.

In theory, if you added 10 percent to the population — or even doubled it — nothing about the labor market would change. Of course, it would take a little while for the economy to adjust. People would have to invest money and start some new businesses to hire all those newcomers. The point is, they would do it. Somebody would realize that the immigrants needed to eat and would open a restaurant; someone else would think to build them housing. Pretty soon there would be new jobs available in kitchens and on construction sites. And that has been going on since the first boat docked at Ellis Island.

But the article also details conflicting information from other economists, notably Cuba-born George Borjas:

“The truth is pretty obvious: immigrants hurt the economic prospects of the Americans they compete with. And now that the biggest contingent of immigrants are poorly educated Mexicans, they hurt poorer Americans, especially African-Americans, the most.

…The consensus of most is that, on balance, immigration is good for the country. Immigrants provide scarce labor, which lowers prices in much the same way global trade does. And overall, the newcomers modestly raise Americans’ per capita income. But the impact is unevenly distributed; people with means pay less for taxi rides and household help while the less-affluent command lower wages and probably pay more for rent.

3 – A middle way?

Louis DeSipio is a professor at UC Irvine who spends a lot of time thinking about immigration.

Speaking to The Voice, DeSipio struck a middle way between the economic agnosticism of Yale-Loehr and the more dire predictions of FAIR’s Mehlman.

Think about it this way, DeSipio said: Yes, some newly authorized immigrants could conceivably create new competition for “native” born workers.

But, DeSipio says, remember that Obama’s plan only gives work authorization for a few years. It’s conditional and limited. DeSipio said it will be a relatively small number of workers who can now compete — really compete — in the legal labor pool. Most undocumented workers, he said, will almost certainly stay doing the kind of jobs (like those in agriculture) that Americans have proven unwilling to do.

As in the example of Cornell, DeSipio says, it’s hard to imagine that the university will train workers and confront language barriers if those with temporary work authorization aren’t even guaranteed a path to citizenship.

“Will it change for a handful out of 5 million? Sure,” DeSipio said.

But, “in the short term, there’s relatively little chance this will create a lot of labor competition.”


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.