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Gaming Guru

Hubble Smith

Immigration Plan Could Fuel Job Competition

8 January 2004

& Rod Smith

LAS VEGAS -- Competition could stiffen for some of the lower-paying jobs in Las Vegas if Congress approves President Bush's proposal to allow illegal immigrants to work for three years in the United States with proper documentation, a local economist said Wednesday.

Those in the construction and tourism industries would be most affected by the political plan, said Keith Schwer, economics professor and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Non-native Hispanics hold a variety of jobs in Southern Nevada, mostly minimum-wage work such as busing tables in casinos or manual labor in construction, he said.

"People who are able to do work in areas where language is not a major issue, it's important for them, and we have lots of those kinds of jobs," Schwer said.

"I think the relevant question is who is most likely to be impacted. It's those with low-paying jobs. There's going to be more competition at those levels."

Bill Thompson, UNLV professor and casino industry expert, agreed the proposed legislation would be good for illegal workers as well as the gaming industry in Nevada.

"It'll allow people already here to work for the casinos. It'll get them off cutting grass and into the casinos. It'll kill the underground economy in Las Vegas -- construction and lawn work -- and these people will become eligible to work for the hotels and help them deal with the labor problems they've had in the past," Thompson said.

"These people are good workers. If they get through the hurdles where they show up for work, they're good workers. It's a good source of labor."

Catherine Levy, spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, also saw the proposed legislation as an opportunity to expand the local workforce.

"Certainly in our Southern Nevada economy, where so many people are retiring and where we have such a fast-growing service sector, there's a real need for expanding the work force," Levy said.

She noted, however, that after reading the text of Bush's proposal the specifics remain unclear.

Casino companies contacted Wednesday refused to comment on the proposal, and Culinary union officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Marc Furman, senior administrative assistant for the Carpenters union in Southern Nevada, couldn't say whether his union would support Bush's proposal without knowing the details.

"I'd have to actually see the legislation, which I haven't yet," he said. "I suspect in some cases it's based on what the worker's status is in this country."

A report from the UNLV research center last year concluded that non-native Hispanics fill more than 200,000 jobs in Southern Nevada, generating $15.5 billion in economic output and $829 million in state and local revenues.

The Hispanic population in Clark County was estimated at 302,000 in the 2000 U.S. Census, roughly 22 percent of the total population. Some say those numbers are vastly underestimated because they don't include illegal aliens living and working here.

About 25 percent of 7,000 union carpenters in Southern Nevada are Hispanic.

The UNLV report found that Hispanics' wages and household incomes generally are lower than the Clark County average.

For example, Hispanic workers made an annual average of $23,495 in construction and mining, compared with the industry average of $40,618. Those in hotel jobs made $19,462, compared with the average of $34,037.