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People line up for an orientation seminar for illegal immigrants, to determine if they qualify for temporary work permits, at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), in Los Angeles, September 20, 2012. Schools and consulates have been flooded with requests for documents since President Barack Obama’s administration said many young illegal immigrants may be eligible for two-year renewable work permits. The new policy has left schools and consulates scrambling for quick fixes ranging from new online forms, reassigned workers and extended hours.
Reed Saxon—AP

Immigration, and especially illegal immigration, is a major political and cultural flashpoint. Surprising new findings from Harvard University researchers will do little to change that, but they do provide some context for dispelling some claims while reinforcing others.

The biggest myth that can be put to bed by the findings is the idea that illegal immigrants are lazy and don't want to work. Men who live in the United States illegally, Harvard economics and social policy professor George Borjas found, are more likely to work than legal immigrants, and even more likely to work than American men in general. They also are willing to work regardless of what they get paid, he said, calling this segment of the labor force "perfectly inelastic."

Back in the mid-'90s, the employment rate among native-born American men, legal and illegal immigrants was roughly equal. In the ensuing years, though, there's been a falloff in the employment rate of native-born men, and an increase in employment by illegal immigrants. In a labor force snapshot from 2012-2013, Borjas found that about 87% of male illegal immigrants worked, compared to 74% of American men. Even after controlling for the fact that this immigrant population was likely to be made up of younger men, he still found a 10-percentage-point difference between the two groups.

The willingness of illegal immigrant labor to work, often for low pay, is not without consequences. In a 2005 paper, Borjas found that the influx of Mexican workers into the U.S. labor market dragged down wages for low-educated Americans, but improved them for college graduates. "These wage effects have, in turn, lowered the prices of non-traded goods and services that are low-skill labor intensive," he concluded.

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It's likely both sides of the aisle will use these findings as fodder for their policy positions. No, illegal immigrants aren't shiftless people who come to mooch off the system, or criminals who make a living by breaking the law. Yes, illegal immigrants undercut American job seekers because they're willing to work for less money. The only conclusion both sides are likely to agree on is that the debate over immigration isn't going away any time soon.