Wednesday, April 05, 2006

On Immigration

We must talk about it. It is the wingnut thought bubble of the day and also what they are going to use to make the wingnut base turn up to vote in November. The emotional message they want to get through is that those nasty Latinos are sneaking in to live on the tax money of Honest Murkans and that they are stealing all the good jobs at the same time, too. And then there is the death of the White Race and Murkan as a spoken language of this motherland. Or fatherland, rather.

The second message of the wingnuts is to a different part of their base: the corporations. You see, the corporations like immigrants, including illegal immigrants, those who are in the country without proper permits, because they are very cheap workers. So the immigrant-bashing must also account for the Good Migrants. Hence the amnesty idea and the guest worker idea. But the Honest Murkans don't like the idea that someone can sneak across the border and then get forgiven for that. Pretzel-like contortions in the message are needed to make all of this come out as good news.

Immigration policy in the U.S. doesn't have very many good news, true. It has real problems and they need addressing. But this is difficult. The roots of the problems are embedded in geography: two wealthy countries just north of many not-so-wealthy countries. The only solution that would really work would be to make Mexico and the countries south of it wealthier, work in the sense of stopping the inflow of people who want to earn more than they can at home or who want their children to have an easier life than they did.

Do immigrants hurt or help Americans? The answer depends on which Americans we mean. Unskilled immigrants compete for jobs with unskilled American workers, and in this sense they hurt the poorest among us. Immigrants can also increase the costs of some local government social programs because immigrants tend to be poorer than the average American. On the other side, immigrants work and pay taxes and contribute towards the public purse. They contribute to the culture and arts of the United States and become Americans themselves, if not in the first generation then in the second or the third one. That's how most Americans were created.

Are immigrants doing jobs that Honest Murkans won't? Not really:

A standard counter-argument, wearily familiar on both sides of the Atlantic, is that immigrants are taking jobs that natives are unwilling to do. This is doubly wrong. First, the supply of labour is dependent on its price. Business people must know this: after all, it is the argument they use to justify soaring executive pay. Without the illegal immigrants, people would have to spend more on nannies, cleaners, farm workers and so forth. Second, most of the workers doing the jobs done also by immigrants are native-born. The obstacle is not the absence of native-born workers, but that they would have to be paid higher wages if immigrants were absent.

Got it? There is no such thing as a job natives won't do if the wage is right. But immigrants do increase the supply of cheap labor and that serves to keep the final prices of goods and services lower than they otherwise would be. In this sense immigration benefits the American consumers and restricting immigration would hurt the consumers by raising prices.

The current administration proposal on immigration is an attempt to please both those who fear immigration and those who want it to continue. It's easy to see that such a proposal will not work:

This time the likely outcome will say to employers: Don't worry. You'll have access to lots of what we'll call "guest" workers. And it will say to Americans who are anxious about too many immigrants: Don't worry. These guest workers will only be here temporarily, and we'll penalize employers who hire any foreigner who's not an official guest worker.

It's a compromise that will satisfy everybody but as a practical matter have absolutely no effect. The biggest lesson we should have learned about immigration is this: As long as there are lots of unskilled jobs in the United States that pay much better than jobs in Latin America or Southeast Asia, and as long as immigrants can fill them, immigrants will get here, somehow -- legally or illegally. Some will risk their lives getting here. And as long as they can buy fake documents saying they're here legally, their employers will be able to say "Don't blame me!"

So what's the answer? There's no simple solution but one major step is to enforce basic labor laws that require employers to pay all their employees the minimum wage and protect their health and safety.

You see, one of the main reasons employers hire undocumented immigrants is that people who are here illegally don't complain when they're paid below the minimum wage or forced to work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. So employers who hire them can cut corners and save money without much risk they'll be caught.

But if America's basic labor laws were truly enforced -- if there are enough state and federal inspectors to increase the probability that an employer who breaks them will get caught, and if the fines and penalties are big enough -- employers won't run the risk. And that would mean fewer jobs here for undocumented immigrants. And if there were fewer jobs for them, fewer of them would cross our borders illegally.

The guest worker program has other problems. Think about what it would mean for social cohesion to have large minorities of people living here with no expectation of becoming Americans.

Er, do you think that this blog might be one of those jobs that Honest Murkans won't want to take? Given that I'm an immigrant and all that.