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'The Indicator From Planet Money': Is the border crisis really a labor market crisis?


Illegal crossings on the southern border fell last month, after hitting a record high in December. Adrian Ma and Wailin Wong are with THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. They've been looking into one economist's research into a possible cause and solution for the surges - according to one economist.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: People migrate for all sorts of reasons, many because of the place they're going is hopefully better than the place they're leaving, and this is something that Dany Bahar started to understand from a young age.

DANY BAHAR: My grandparents were born in Europe before World War II. They were Jewish and were young people during the Holocaust, and they had to flee. Their families were killed, but they actually ended up in Venezuela, which was one of the only countries in the world that had, essentially, kind of an open migration policy at the time.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: So Dany grew up in Venezuela, and after college, he himself became a migrant. He moved to Israel for several years, where he earned a master's in economics, and then to the United States, to get a Ph.D. in public policy. Today he's a professor at Brown University who studies the economic effects of migration.

BAHAR: What we have now is not a border crisis. It's a labor market crisis.

WONG: Not a border crisis, but a labor market crisis. He's talking about the 1.5 jobs for every unemployed person that we've been seeing for the past few years.

BAHAR: So even if every unemployed person in the U.S. goes and take all the jobs that are available, there are still going to be many more jobs to fill. I think this has a significant impact on the number of people crossing the border, and at the same time, it's completely overlooked.

WONG: Part of the reason Dany is so confident is that he recently published research that looked at labor market tightness and attempted border crossings over the past 25 years, and the pattern is clear - more people try to cross the southern border when the U.S. job market is hot. That's what migration researchers call a pull factor. Conversely, when the job market cools off and there are fewer jobs available, border crossings decrease.

MA: But Dany argues that there is a way to try and systemically address both the need for labor and the situation at the border. He says if you want to see a decrease in unauthorized migration, make it easier for people who want to come here and work to do so legally.

BAHAR: To give enough legal pathways for these people to fulfill these jobs in a way that they can be employed legally, pay payroll taxes like everybody else, I think it's a win-win-win situation.

WONG: But if the solution is expanding legal pathways to working in the U.S., how would that work? Daniel Costa, who studies immigration policy at the Economic Policy Institute, has one proposal.

DANIEL COSTA: Having a commission on immigration in the labor market that studies the health of the economy and makes recommendations about where the levels should be, I think it's a really common-sense idea that would take into account that pull factor that we're talking about.

WONG: But Daniel also adds a note of caution. If expanding legal pathways means expanding temporary work visas, that program has its own problems for the workers who are granted those visas.

COSTA: They come with visas that are essentially owned and controlled by employers who control their immigration status, and so in practice, they don't have a lot of rights.

WONG: Any expansion, he says, has to make sure workers' rights are not exploited.

MA: Of course, not everyone agrees with this take on immigration and the economy, which is partly why this is such a hot-button issue this election season. Adrian Ma.

WONG: Wailin Wong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.
Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.