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The Boston Globe

Business

Debating the upside of amnesty for immigrants

Questions over whether benefits outweigh costs

Itziar Llamoca, an immigrant from Peru, owns Fiesta Place, a party supply store in Port Chester, N.Y.

Suzanne DeChillo/New York Times

Itziar Llamoca, an immigrant from Peru, owns Fiesta Place, a party supply store in Port Chester, N.Y.

PORT CHESTER, N.Y. — Nearly 20 years after he arrived penniless from Mexico, Moises owns two restaurants, with a third on the way. He has five employees, an American wife, and a stepdaughter. His food has a following on Yelp.com.

What Moises does not have is US citizenship, or even a green card permitting him to reside legally in the United States. So he inhabits an economic netherworld, shuttling between his establishments on the bus and train because he cannot get a driver’s license and making do without bank loans or credit cards even as he files for zoning permits and incorporation papers.

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The estimated 11 million immigrants here illegally are often portrayed as dishwashers, farmhands, gardeners, and other low-paid workers. But increasingly they are also business owners and employers. That’s why economists say opening the door to entrepreneurs like Moises, as well as others with talents and skills, could give the US economy a much-needed shot in the arm.

The most prominent feature of the proposed immigration bill introduced by a bipartisan group of senators last month would provide residents of the United States who overstayed their visas or arrived illegally before Dec. 31, 2011, a path to citizenship, one that would probably take more than a decade to complete. But less noticed is that the legislation would offer such residents much more immediate provisional status, enabling them to work and travel legally.

That would make it easier for immigrants here illegally to open businesses, buy homes and cars, and negotiate raises.

While there is considerable debate about whether increased immigration depresses wages on the low end of the pay scale, most experts say allowing more new immigrants and offering a more secure legal footing for workers who are currently in the country illegally would bring the nation broad economic gains.

‘‘We need more legal immigration,’’ said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, an economist at the conservative Manhattan Institute. ‘‘Additional human capital results in more growth.’’

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Lawrence F. Katz, a more liberal Harvard professor of economics who is among those who say that immigration can push down pay for workers directly competing with new immigrants, nevertheless supports the argument that a freer flow of people from other nations would foster growth. ‘‘No doubt some individuals are harmed,’’ he said, ‘‘but the benefits outweigh the costs.’’

But some conservative skeptics see a steep price in a broad amnesty, from increased social services and entitlements.

The pluses and minuses are evident in Port Chester, a working-class village of 29,000 about 30 miles north of Midtown Manhattan that shares a border with affluent Greenwich, Conn.

Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, have transformed downtown Port Chester, which fell on hard times in the 1980s and ’90s. Today, 59 percent of the population is of Hispanic origin, said Christopher Gomez, director of planning and development. Between 1990 and 2010, Port Chester’s population jumped 17 percent.

The immigrant influx, he added, has become the lifeblood of the town.

Mexican and Peruvian restaurants dot the streets. Immigrant-owned stores offer goods from Ecuador and services like money transfers.

The predominance of Spanish-speaking customers has forced older businesses to adapt. Chris Rubeo, owner of Feinsod Hardware, hired Spanish-speaking workers to help him compete with a nearby Home Depot and lure Hispanic contractors and builders.

Even as Moises has prospered, the influx of cheap labor has depressed wages among certain types of workers.

That benefits business owners, giving them plenty of people to hire. But it underscores research by Katz and other economists that shows increased immigration can reduce wages slightly for some native-born workers, especially lower-skilled ones.

There are other side effects: Port Chester’s schools are overcrowded, and longtime residents complain that houses are occupied by many more residents than zoning laws permit. And with one resident in 10 below the poverty line, social services have felt a strain.

Still, at street level, the economic impact of the immigrant wave has largely been positive.

Immigrant-owned restaurants have drawn patrons from wealthier areas, and more upscale options like Mario Batali’s Tarry Lodge have moved into the community. Several new real estate developments aimed at affluent renters have opened or are in development; at the Mariner, rents for a one-bedroom exceed $2,000 a month.

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