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Immigration debate crux: jobs impact

Experts weigh how illegal workers affect US employment.

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Seal the border. Round up all the illegal immigrants and send them back to their home countries. Start a whole new agency to handle only invited guest workers.

Would that open up more jobs for American citizens?

This is one of the key questions being posed as the US considers the economics of illegal immigration - with no easy solutions to the challenges in sight.

As Congress debates a new immigration bill, some economists believe any restrictions are likely to be disruptive to a variety of industries, from construction to hospitality to agriculture. At the very least, restrictions could add to employers' costs as they scramble to attract new workers with higher wages. But new regulations might also be good for those without much education or marketable skills: Business might be forced to train them. And those in lower wage brackets might see their wages rise as they face less competition for jobs.

"Do undocumented workers take away jobs from Americans?" asks Anthony Chan, chief economist at JPMorgan Private Client Services in Columbus, Ohio. "My best guess is that they take some jobs away. Some Americans are willing to work at those jobs at low salaries, but not all [Americans are]."

Analysts are quick to point out that the economics of undocumented immigration are complex. Few models have been crafted that try to look at how the US economy would perform without tapping into inexpensive labor for some jobs.

"We can't run econometric models. The numbers aren't good enough," says David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York.

One challenge in performing any calculations is agreeing on the number of undocumented workers. Only estimates exist, and they range from 9 million to 20 million. The conventional estimate is 11 million. But no one really knows for sure.

By way of contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates how many people out of a workforce of 143 million are unemployed. Last month, 7,193,000, or 4.8 percent, were out pounding the pavement.

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