Sunday, May 13, 2007

Does Illegal Immigration Hurt America?

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.

3 comments:

Thescoundrel said...

I am still looking for a champion for my vote and I have looked into Tancredo’s campaign. But I found him too extreme for my taste. But I don’t agree with your interpretation of Tancredo’s lack of popularity as a watermark on the nations view about illegal immigrants. I see it more as a combination of the rejection of Tancredo himself due to a lack of recognition and the fact that even for those like me who thinks we are soft on illegal aliens, Tancredo is too much of an extremist.

I do agree with much of your thoughts about the possible wage limit variances. The competition and labor availability for low skilled jobs is too great to create a wage increase of major proportions. Many companies like Deere have won Union concessions and have been rolling back new-hire starting wages and worker benefits for labor positions. There was a day when it was possible that you could drive up the wages of low skilled laborers but in the current global economic competition, the ability to do so again lies far into the future - if ever again. There are still some low skilled labor positions where a minimal opportunity still survives, but with overseas competition it is almost an impossibility in the manufacturing areas short of imposed trade barriers.

I do not think the Union analogy of "stick together" holds any water either. Unions are not a hospitable group of individuals when it comes to labor disputes. Just ask any replacement worker brought in during a strike. (Scabs is the appropriate Union slur for those individuals.) Unions are notorious for vigilante justice upon replacement workers. The appropriate greeting usually is displayed with fists, clubs and guns. Though I have been told several Union Member’s personal experience stories that have included more inventive greetings involving items such as tar/feathers, fire, mob exploits and dynamite. Unions are only hospitable to outsiders when it serves their purpose.

Anonymous said...

I believe the current official unemployment rate is a little below 5%, which is almost as low as it ever gets. Economists say that it won't get much lower than that because the last 4 or 5% of the work force includes people who are temporarliy between jobs (there are always some of those) and people who can't keep a job because of some handicap. I have also heard that there are about 13 million illegal immigrants working in the U.S. now.

Question: Do the 13 million illegals outnumber the 4 to 5% unemployed? If so, then those 13 million illegals could not be replaced if they left, even assuming that all of the 4-5% unemployed are employable. If I am right, then it's not a quesiton of Americans being unwilling to take those jobs, instead, it's the case that Americans already have better jobs and there aren't enough unemployed Americans to take the jobs the illegals have.

So why not simply allow the foreign workers to be here legally? The reason seems to be that they are more exploitable when they are "illegal". They can be hired for less than minimum wage, they are less likely to complain if they are ripped off, they won't report crimes being committed against them. Other people benefit from the exploitablility of the illegals - employers, merchants, creditors, crooks, etc. Those urging deportation don't seem to understand that this is unlikely to happen because so many Americans are benefiting from their presence.

So: "Does Illegal Immigration Hurt America?" Yes, but only because it's "illegal" and allows us to exploit a helpless class of people. This doesn't hurt us economically, it hurts us morally and spiritually, just as slavery did. It is unAmerican to have a class of people with no legal rights who can be mistreated by the rest of us. I propose that we return to the open immigration policy of 1776 to 1880, welcome all who can support themselves and obey the laws, and give them the same legal protections that everyone else here enjoys.

Dave Barrett said...

anonymous,
Good points! The 800 pound gorilla sitting in the living room that no one wants to talk about is how everyone in America is benefiting from the current situation of having a large group of second class citizens without rights and intimidated by all the talk (but little action) of sending them all back home.

It is not so much that they are being exploited (because as badly as they are being treated here they are better off here than if they were deported) but what it does to us as Americans and to our democracy, our values, or morals and our belief in human rights and dignity to, in effect, become slave holders again.