The very low poll numbers Tom Tancredo’s campaign for president is generating shows there is not much support for his idea that the sheer number of non-English speaking immigrants, both legal and illegal, is damaging our society and changing it in undesirable ways. These ideas are apparently more racist and xenophobic than are the vast majority of Americans. This is certainly encouraging news.
There is much broader support, however, for the idea that the large number of illegal immigrants willing to work hard for low wages are depressing the wages for legal Americans, presumably most especially for unskilled and under-educated Americans, mostly minorities, who are only qualified for the most menial and lowest wage jobs. The most extreme version of this idea is the often-heard complaint that illegal immigrants are filling jobs that legal Americans would hold if the illegal immigrants were not here. This, of course, is nonsense. Illegal immigrants are at a great disadvantage in the job market compared to Americans who speak English and have valid documents and Social Security numbers. Almost every job currently held by an illegal immigrant would have been given instead to an English-speaking American with a valid Social Security number if any legal Americans willing and able to do the job had shown up to apply for it.
It is a little harder to refute the variant of this idea which says that if the illegal immigrants were not here the wages offered for the jobs that illegal immigrants now hold would have to be increased until they were high enough that legal Americans would be willing to do those jobs. It is also believed by many that this would create a cascade effect that would also raise the wages for all jobs in America. Of course, in the face of labor shortages, wages can not rise without limit. For every job there is a limit to how high wages can rise before the job disappears. Above that limit either a cheaper alternative exists such as automation or moving the job off-shore or the higher wage would force the price for the produced product above the limit the market would bear and demand for the product would disappear along with the job of producing that product. For the jobs now held by illegal immigrants in America how much higher is this limit than the current wage? How much would wages rise if we created a labor shortage by removing the illegal immigrants? How many of the jobs would just disappear if there was no one willing to fill them at the currently offered wage? Would low wage workers be better or worse off? Would most Americans be better or worse off? There is no way anyone can know that with any degree of certainty.
There is a possibility that removing the illegal immigrants would create a labor shortage that would contract the economy, creating a recession and wages would go down. Is that more or less likely than wages rising? Who knows! At the very least the price of a hotel stay, the price of a meal in a restaurant, the prices of fruits and vegetables picked by migrant workers and other things Americans buy would go up if the wages for the jobs now held by illegal immigrants went up. Even if removing the illegal immigrants caused wages to rise (not a sure thing) would the rise in wages more than offset the higher prices that would result so that most Americans would be better off? Who knows!
What do we do in the face of such uncertainty? The AFL-CIO says that one thing we can know for sure is that all workers should stick together for their mutual benefit. Christianity teaches us that God requires us to offer hospitality to strangers and aid to the less fortunate. American History teaches us that we are an immigrant nation that has benefited and grown with each wave of immigration. During the great wave of Irish Immigration from 1860 – 1890 many thought the large numbers of new Irish immigrants were hurting America. Today no one (that I know of) claims that those Irish immigrants changed America for the worse or made any Americans worse off in any way.
When poor people, willing to work hard and wanting to help their families show up in our communities looking for work will we regret allowing them to stay? Being hospitable and welcoming and showing human kindness can never be the wrong thing to do.