Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Jobs Americans Won't Do (In An Election Year)

[Originally posted at on May 13, 2006]

On Monday night, the president will address the nation on the issue of illegal immigration. Up until now, I have been silent on the subject. Perhaps it is because I am an immigrant myself (though a legal one). Or perhaps it is because immigration, even when legal, is one of the most complex and baffling issues that societies face in a world where borders are losing their definition faster than you can say "go back to where you came from." But, alas, I can no longer hold my peace on the subject because every time I turn on the radio, the TV or the Internet on my computer I have to listen, watch, or read more irritating platitudes on the subject than I can stomach, most of which fail to address the complexity of the issue and almost completely miss the point.

There are four fairly mainstream positions on illegal immigration, and they can be summarized as follows:

  • Those at the extreme right of the political spectrum consider illegal immigration an issue of law and order. Their proposed solutions go from building fences along the border to arresting and deporting all eleven million illegal immigrants already in this country.
  • Pro-business conservatives like to say that illegal immigrants are here to do jobs that American citizens won't do. This is more or less the position expressed by President Bush, who advocates an amnesty program for illegal immigrants who already have jobs in the United States.
  • Pro-union liberals see illegal immigration as a scourge, responsible for the loss of American jobs and the decline of American wages over the years.
  • Bleeding heart liberals see illegal immigrants as refugees, victims of corporate exploitation and therefore advocate their unconditional inclusion in the ranks of Americans.

As always, there is some truth in each of these limited views. But a lot is lost in these high-level generalizations. For example, those who blame illegal immigrants for the loss of American jobs fail to recognize that American jobs are lost as a result of offshoring plants and facilities. If anything, illegal immigration can explain the stagnation of wages in jobs at the low end of the economic ladder. Employers who can easily find a five-dollar an hour replacement (or less) for each American worker demanding a wage increase will take the chance of hiring an illegal worker, since the chance of getting caught are almost zero, thanks to the complicity of a government that aids and abets illegal practices and refuses to address other related issues, like the minimum wage (or a fair working wage), universal healthcare, etc.

Bleeding-heart liberals, who are forever ready to embrace the plight of the downtrodden in principle, fail to see that there is a difference between legal and illegal immigrants. Their almost unconditional support for the masses of illegal immigrants is seen by many, and rightly so, as an implicit betrayal of American citizens who suffer economically as a result of the constant and undeterred influx of economic refuges from Mexico and Central American countries. These liberals are guilty of a failure to recognize, as free-market advocates also conveniently do, that by artificially altering the availability of cheap labor, the economic balance is also altered in response to the economic law of supply and demand.

In order to understand the position of pro-business conservatives, one need only look so far as the President of the United States. Mr. Bush, the compassionate conservative, is not loathe to displaying inordinate amounts of compassion: for the plight of corporations. He is a "haves" rather than a "haves-not" type of conservative. Everything he says must always be filtered through his habit of favoring big business over individuals (except for very rich ones.) So, every time he shows up on television saying that illegal immigrants are here to do the jobs that Americans won't do, you should interpret that as "the jobs that Americans won't do for less than a fair wage." And when he says that small businesses rely on the availability of these undocumented immigrants to stay in business, what he really means is "in order to maximize their profits, the not-so-small businesses that I am talking about need a constant influx of illegal workers who can be terrorized with the prospect of being deported if they don't do as we say." The president will also try to appease law-and-order Republicans by advocating the use of the National Guard to secure our borders. Nothing gives these law-and-order Republicans a bigger rush than the thought of military force being used, whether at home or abroad. Well, perhaps nothing other than the prospect of executing millions of illegal immigrants. But even President Bush won't go that far.

In reality, and perhaps luckily, illegal immigration cannot be solved simply with a stroke of the this president's pen. Rather, it is important to recognize illegal immigration in its organic relation to the business world. Illegal immigration is to the domestic enterprise as offshoring (often erroneously referred to as outsourcing) is to the global enterprise: a modern form of slavery. Both illegal immigration and offshoring are manifestations of the desire of companies to maximize profits for their stockholders. The new, borderless, profit-worshipping American corporation has long ago broken its old allegiance with the American workforce, in favor of a new paradigm of slashing labor costs as much as possible. This would not have been possible without the complicity of Congress and of successive presidents. The Reagan administration acquiesced to, and even facilitated, union-busting practices, which continue to this day under the current Bush administration. Even President Clinton, who has generally been regarded as a champion of the middle class, has the dubious distinction of having signed NAFTA into law, marking a grave defeat for the American worker. (NAFTA had been advertised as an instrument in closing the gap that existed between the American and the Mexican economies. Had it worked as intended, one would have expected to see a decline in he number of Mexican immigrants into the United States. Instead, this has not happened.) To believe that this Congress and this President have sincere designs of immigration reform on their mind is tantamount to believing that entrusting the henhouse to a group of foxes is a security enhancement for the hens.

Clearly, a simple solution to the problem of illegal immigration does not exist. Serious attempts to reduce the number of illegal immigrants must, for one thing, address the conditions of Mexican workers in their homeland. Raising salaries and reducing unemployment in Mexico and Central America are essential steps in stemming the tide of U.S. bound immigrants. This will be no easy feat, and it would take strong-willed politicians on both sides of the border, and decades to accomplish, if it can be accomplished at all. In the meantime, the United States must find a way to cope with the flood of immigrants who will continue to seek a better life on this side of the border. Even so, the worst thing we can do, is to continue to let people enter this country unchecked. Clandestine workers are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers, who can take advantage of them under the threat of deportation. They are bad for legal and American workers because they create a state of disadvantageous competition. And, finally, they are bad for American society on the whole, because they raise social costs (for example, healthcare costs.)

By now it should be apparent that real immigration reform must take several components into account: the security of our borders, the conditions of our workforce, and the ideals that we embrace as a society. Unfortunately, the issue of immigration is likely to be just another convenient and polarizing election-year topic, aimed--at least in part--at redirecting our attention away from the failure of this administration and this Congress to address the real concerns of the middle-class and the swelling ranks of the poor, and to distract us from the descent of the nation into a spiral of corporate tyranny.

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