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Longing For Footnotes On Radio Stories

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SAN DIEGO -- If only radio stories could have footnotes. And really, not just radio stories but print and video as well. Often in the name of clarity and story flow, we journalists have to leave out at least some of the “if”s, “and”s, and “but”s (mostly the “but”s) that we might include in an intelligent off-line conservation about the topic.

And then there are all the great little tidbits you pick up while reporting that either have no place in the story or don’t survive the editing process.

Here are some of the footnotes I would have included in my last story about the potential impacts on the construction industry of a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. (English teachers please excuse the lack of APA or any other style.)

The guys standing out front of Home Depot are often cheaper. (1)

“One day you can earn $150 and the next, $60 or $50,” Vladimir Estorga said. (2)

Many illegal immigrants have been working in the U.S. for decades, so whatever effect they might have had on the labor market happened decades ago. (3)

If immigration reform is well policed, employers will find it harder to pay undocumented workers under the table. Contractors will have to pay workers' compensation and payroll taxes for newly legalized employees, which means construction costs could go up. (4)

Newly legalized immigrants who don’t already pay taxes will start paying, and that will be a boon to public coffers. But they may also qualify for federal benefits, like food stamps and tax credits. (5)

(1) True, undocumented immigrant workers are sometimes willing to work for less than American workers, but people in the construction business told me that sometimes legal workers who are contracted out by employment agencies actually make even less that illegal workers because the agencies take a big cut.

(2) So I’m interviewing Estorga in Spanish for about 10 minutes and all of a sudden he tells me he grew up here, and then switches to perfect English. Turns out he used to be part of the local carpenter’s union, and he was a legal resident until he forgot to renew it in his carefree youth. Then he got deported after traffic tickets caught up with him. He spent some time trying to make it in Tijuana, then finally gave up and came back illegally. After being pushed around by the Tijuana police and, he says, discriminated against because of his deportee status, he now really appreciates what this country has to offer.

(3) True, but there could be a secondary effect on the labor pool and wages if newly legalized immigrants are eventually allowed to bring in relatives, and/or if illegal immigrants start streaming into the country again, lured by a revitalized economy or the possibility of getting legal residence. Still, most of the research suggests immigrants have a negative effect (some say large, some say tiny), primarily on low-skilled workers.

(4) Many undocumented workers use fake Social Security Numbers or use the numbers of real people. About 6 million illegal immigrants file individual income tax returns each year, according to estimates from the federal government. I couldn’t find estimates on how many illegal construction workers pay taxes but it’s likely that many do, so it’s hard to say how big of an effect getting workers on the books would have for construction firms.

(5) You’ve probably noticed by this point there are a lot of “could”s and “may”s in this story. It’s because there are so many variables, and much of the available research on the undocumented population is tenuous because it’s a population largely in the shadows.

For more on how undocumented immigrants currently affect the budgets of state and local governments, check out this 2007 report from the Congressional Budget Office.