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The economic impact of immigration

The politics of immigration aside, there is now a serious debate in the U.S. as to whether illegal immigrants help or hurt the economy. CNBC's Carl Quintanilla reports.

Pick 20 workers in the U.S. at random, and one of them is an illegal immigrant. They do jobs most Americans wouldn't take, for wages they wouldn't want.

That's a goodthing for Christy Webber, whose Chicago landscaping business, she says, relies almost entirely on legalHispanic immigrants.

With all that cheap labor, she can pocket more profits, pay her skilled workers more and even lower her prices.

"I wouldn't be able to perform my work," says Webber. "I wouldn't be able to, you know, keep up my contracts."

The problem is the effect that immigration has on poor Americans already here, chasing the same jobs.

A Harvard University study in 2004 found immigration — both legal and illegalreduced annual earnings for American-born men by 3.7 percent, or nearly $1,700. For those without a high school degree, the effect was double that, with wages down 7.4 percent.

"The American workers hurt the most are already the poorest, and that raises a lot of concerns," says Steven Camerota, who works at the Center for Immigration Studies and favors stricter immigration rules.

Immigrants point out they're not just workers. They're consumers with money to spend. At Monday's rallies, they pledged to prove that point by boycotting all spending for one day.

That "spending" is overshadowed, though, by the burden they place on schools and hospitals — draining resources not so much from the federalgovernment, but fromstates.

"The average native-born household in California paid $1,200 more in taxes than they got in benefits," says James Smith, a senior economist with the Rand Corp. "Almost all of that was because of immigration's effect on California."

Most economists agree: Whether it helps or hurts, immigration's effect on the U.S. economy is small. There simply aren't enough immigrants to make a dent. But that hasn't stopped the debate that is now economic — and emotional — all at once.