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In California, plan to boost deportations worries some employers

Natalie Kitroeff and Shan Li, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- The news that President Donald Trump ordered an aggressive crackdown on 11 million undocumented people sent a chill through immigrant communities. California businesses that employ lots of immigrants are shivering too.

Two memos released by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Tuesday directed immigration officers to broaden the scope of their enforcement, conduct more raids of immigrant communities, and detain people living here illegally regardless of whether they had a criminal record.

Those marching orders could hit the California economy particularly hard. Many of the industries that depend heavily on immigrants already were experiencing a labor shortage.

Undocumented workers make up 10 percent of the labor force in California, USC researchers have estimated, and form a large chunk of the employment that drives massive industries such as agriculture and construction.

Undocumented people account for 45 percent of agriculture employment in California and 21 percent of construction workers, according to the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. Smaller but significant portions of the workforce in food service, manufacturing, hospitality and entertainment are undocumented.

California is particularly dependent on immigrants and on undocumented workers not only because of its southern border but also because the state is such an expensive place to live and do business in, economists say.

"In the urban, rich economies of California, the high-end jobs are for U.S. born (workers) and the service, low-end jobs are for immigrants. Immigrants have adjusted to the high-cost environment, and that's a way for them to absorb this cost," said Giovanni Peri, an economist at UC Irvine.

Immigrants tend to live in tight quarters and move around a lot in order to cushion the blow of expensive real estate in California's biggest cities, something that native-born Americans may be less willing to do, Peri said.

"Americans won't live three people to a room in San Diego," Peri added.

There are an estimated 2.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the state, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Kicking them all out would "decimate" California farms, construction sites and hospitality businesses, Peri said. He estimated that could reduce California's economic output by 9 percent.

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