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How reliant Ventura, Santa Barbara counties are on the economic contributions of undocumented immigrants

There are about 100,000 undocumented immigrants in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. They make up about 10% of the population of Santa Barbara County and 7% of Ventura County’s population.
There are about 100,000 undocumented immigrants in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. They make up about 10% of the population of Santa Barbara County and 7% of Ventura County’s population.

Illegal workers contribute over $9 billion annually to the local economy. They also personally pay over $2 billion in state and federal taxes every year.

The story comes from KCLU’s podcast The One Oh One. You can listen to the full episode here.

When you interact with Jamshid Damooei about economics you’ll find his reports are full of numbers but his words are full of passion.

“Can we imagine California without undocumented immigrants? I would say no,” he said.

He’s a Professor of Economics and the Executive Director of the Center for Economics of Social Issues at California Lutheran University – the licensee of KCLU.

Many of us do know, generally, the importance undocumented immigrants play in our local economies – most may think of farm workers. But Damooei wanted to find out how important their contributions were – what does the data show?

“And when you really look at that picture, you see that they are an inseparable part of this economy,” said Damooei.

Inseparable. Interdependence. These words are the theme of this report.

Economic contributions

Damooei’s research details how undocumented workers contribute to the regional economy in two main ways – through their jobs or work and through the taxes they pay.

Let’s start with jobs.

In both counties, more than 30,000 undocumented immigrants work in agriculture – by far the largest share of jobs in this population.

“I can't imagine that we can have agriculture, even in Ventura County or Santa Barbara or in California as a whole without undocumented immigrants, each just cannot be imagined to exist,” said Damooei.

Thousands more work in retail, manufacturing, construction and other industries.

Their work contributes to the local economy in three ways: there’s the direct impact, indirect impact and induced impact.

To paint a picture of what these fancy economic terms actually mean, let’s use agriculture as an example.

Let’s say you have a farm worker who has a job as a strawberry picker. That work directly contributes to the regional GDP.

Then other industries pop up around agriculture — in our example let’s imagine those strawberries are bought by a local frozen food company, who sells them as frozen strawberries perfect for a smoothie – this is the indirect impact.

Then the farm worker goes home to pay the bills – rent and groceries. That’s your induced impact.

All these impacts amount to $14 billion annually for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

“And so, yes, so it is all their contribution as a significant segment of the labor force in the region,” said Damooei.

The report also shows that the work undocumented immigrants do creates an additional 27,000 jobs in these adjacent industries - like that frozen food company.

And the knock on effect of the work of undocumented immigrants goes beyond the local economy. It’s felt across the state and nationally.

Think about agriculture exports, says Damooei.

“You won't have any export segment of it, because these products are produced that are actually sent around the world as well as within the region. So you have all of these industries, all these activities depend on the core contribution of the agriculture sector,” he said.

Tax contributions

Let’s move now to taxes – specifically income taxes.

Many believe undocumented immigrants don’t contribute to these types of taxes, says Damooei.

“So I don't know how people get this idea that there are takers. I have another word for it. They are makers, actually. They're not takers of the tax money. They are makers of the tax money. Let's accept it,” said Damooei.

How do these contributions work? Stick with me on this… there’s a lot to understand here.

How do tax contributions actually work?

First let’s start with how they are hired in the first place. Everyone getting a new job in the U.S. has to prove they are legally allowed to work in this country – you’ll recall the I-9 process of showing your U.S. passport or birth certificate or social security card or green card. But undocumented workers don’t have any of these and will often use false or fake documents… or perhaps the employer isn’t even following this process.

Many undocumented workers, especially in the agriculture industry, find work through agencies or subcontractors. These subcontractors are hired by a farm or ag company to provide workers for harvest season, for example. These ag companies pay a set fee for the workers and because they’re not hiring directly, and using this third party subcontractor, they don’t generally check immigration status or provide benefits thereby keeping these workers (and their illegal work status) at arm’s length.

The subcontractors function like a normal company with payroll. So the undocumented worker is given a pay stub and that’ll show taxes being taken off each pay period.

Side note here: if workers are paid cash (which violates all sorts of labor and tax laws) there generally is no pay stub and so taxes aren’t taken off.

But many undocumented workers will declare the cash when they file their own taxes each year. They do this because they hope one day to apply for citizenship and that process requires showing you filed your taxes over a number of years.

Most will file taxes using an ITIN number – an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. This is a legal number supplied by the IRS. The IRS isn’t checking immigration status and is rather interested in all people working in the U.S. paying income taxes. This number is given to a sports or movie star in the country for a short work stint, for example, and undocumented workers.

And you can’t use this number to get benefits like social security or unemployment – it’s just for paying taxes.

The tax contributions of this population amounts to over $550 million in local taxes each year for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. If you add Federal and State taxes together it amounts to over $2.2 billion.

“They are paying taxes. And guess what? We pick up our Social Security payment. They don't. They don't pick up anything about Medicare or other things. All those entitlements that we have and we pay towards them. They pay, but they are deprived from the positive consequences,” said Damooei.

And these contributions are not short term. Damooei’s report reveals a large part of the local undocumented population – close to 30% – has been in the U.S. for more than 20 years. Meaning billions of dollars in tax contributions over the years.

Meet undocumented workers Jorge and Leticia

Now let's hear the stories of two undocumented workers who can put a human voice to this economic report. (The quotes in this section were translated from Spanish)

First there’s Jorge from Santa Maria. Jorge has been in the U.S. for about 25 years. In those years he’s worked as a gardener and farm worker.

Also meet Leticia from Oxnard. She’s worked in agricultural packing houses, in fast food restaurants and in hotel housekeeping. She’s been in the U.S. for 18 years.

Jorge was just 16-years-old when he came to the U.S. from Mexico in search of better economic opportunities.

For Leticia, also from Mexico, she was in search of a better future for her daughters. One daughter was born in the U.S. and the other two were born in Mexico and are DACA recipients.

This program allows certain young people, who were brought to the U.S. unlawfully as children, get some protections against deportation. They don’t have quote on quote ‘official’ legal status but can get things like a driver’s license and work permit.

For both Jorge and Leticia, their undocumented status is unlikely to change in the near future.

Leticia says she’s like many other people dreaming of that path to legal status.

So their jobs over the years contribute to the economy. What about taxes?

Both Jorge and Leticia tell me they have taxes taken from their paychecks each payday. They also file their taxes with the IRS every year.

Leticia elaborates on what the process is like for her.

English translation: She receives an ITIN number from the IRS. It's basically a temporary number that they give you so you could file your taxes. And that's what she's used to file her taxes. And the reason why she files her taxes is because it's required to do so. 

Leticia says she’s actually got a refund before.

But beyond being a requirement that she do it, filing taxes has been important to Leticia for other reasons.

English translation: She gave the example of her daughter when they were applying to college, they needed to have the income statements or the tax statements from her parents and it's also because she eventually, if she does want to get some path to citizenship, you do have to have your taxes prepared and ready.

Because of their illegal status they don’t qualify for the benefits the rest of us take for granted – like social security when we retire, or vacation days. Jorge shares what he wishes he had access to.

English translation: It's really unemployment because he’s undocumented, he’s not able to receive it. Also, things like health care, even though they take part of his check for social security, he’s not able to receive the benefits from it. Also vacation time. The companies that a lot of them work for don't give them back vacation time because they don't have documentation. 

Leticia says during the pandemic, they were labeled ‘essential workers’ but never really got any type of help.

All of this leaves these two undocumented immigrants with a lot of worry.

Here’s Jorge again.

English translation: His worries are that one day they might just lay his off from work. Getting a job in this area is very, very difficult. You can go weeks or months without being able to get a new job. Companies are also very strict in hiring new personnel, especially if you don't have citizenship. 

Leticia also worries about not working and not being able to pay her bills – the uncertainty that comes with it. She also worries about deportation – if California politics were to suddenly become more like Florida, she says.

She gets emotional talking about the family members she can never visit in Mexico, because of the risk that she wouldn’t be able to get back into the US.

English translation: She says there’s the unknown and they also fear about family back home. She says it's very traumatic when they lose  someone back home. And there's just no way of getting back to them when they are sick, when they're in their final moments here on this earth.  

What this researcher says needs to change

Both are activists in their communities – speaking out about their circumstances.

Leticia helps others like her navigate the life of a worker without papers. Jorge advocates for more protections, more safety nets, for undocumented workers.

It is ironic, of course, that these people are considered, quote unquote, illegal immigrants – but their contributions – remember we’re talking $14 billion from labor force participation or the $550 million in local taxes – are very much accepted and spent in our local economies in a legal way. Remember the theme of this report: inseparable. Interdependence.

“This is study shows what kinds of interdependence exist between a large group of undocumented immigrants and the economy of the region,” said Jamshid Damooei.

So, Damooei’s report comes with strong opinions on the issue, and some controversial suggestions. For one, he says that Santa Barbara and Ventura counties should become sanctuary counties.

“All the work that they have done during COVID, before or after. It will continue. We enjoy all of that, but we let them live in fear of being taken by ICE. I think it is a moral imperative for every county,” said Damooei. “They should take that fear, that layer of the fear away from them and also allow them to be more active, to be freely participating. And I think that will be a greater participation, not a lesser.”

He says there should also be an emphasis on moving undocumented workers out of the shadows.

He says equal pay for equal work needs to be prioritized as currently undocumented workers have little way of negotiating salaries.

He says DACA recipients also need to be prioritized at places like universities and colleges.

He also wants those who call undocumented workers “takers” or blame them for the economic woes of the day – particularly certain politicians – to know his report proves just the opposite.

“The economic problems that we have, is not because of undocumented immigrants. So don't put the blame – there is no reason and there is no evidence to prove,” said Damooei.


During the interview Maria Navarro acted as translator for Leticia. Maria is the Senior Policy Advocate at CAUSE – the Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy. 

During the interview Daniel Segura acted as translator for Jorge. Daniel is a youth and young adult community organizer in Santa Maria for CAUSE. 

Robert Gomez provided additional translation help. 

Ventura-based immigration attorney Vanessa Frank who provided legal insights for this piece. 


If you're looking for The One Oh One® Design Collective visit:

Michelle oversees digital products at KCLU and is the host and creator of the station's first award-winning podcast The One Oh One. The podcast has won a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award, an RTNA 'Best Podcast' award and an LA Press Club award.