Sunday, September 25, 2011
Why Illegal Immigration Matters
The last round of Republican debates has brought the issue back to the fore, even though some hosts and pundits have warned the party not to get sidelined by discussing illegal immigration. But the question is does it matter?
Republicans in the last few years have begun surrendering values issues to focus on economic issues, but illegal immigration is not a values issue. It's not even simple a law issue-- it is an issue of basic economics. The social safety net is undermined by demographics and uncontrolled spending, but the arrival of large numbers of people with large families who work off the books is a major load. It's a major load in the UK and through Europe. It's a major load here.
There are two diametrical responses to this problem. Some form of legalization, whether it's full amnesty or a path to citizenship or a special status for migrant workers. Or enforcement.
The problem with the variations of the first approach is that it is attempting to tame the problem without actually addressing it. Illegal immigration exists because employers want cheap labor and because illegal immigrants want access to a First World economy and its social safety net.
Amnesty or a path to citizenship does nothing to address either problem. Employers will still want cheap labor and illegal immigrants will still keep coming. A path to citizenship will legalize some of them, but that will do nothing for the overall problem.
Migrant workers gives employers access to cheap labor, but only temporarily. Liberal activism is sure to regulate any migrant labor and price it above that of illegal aliens-- and that puts us right back to square uno. On top of that giving millions of people access to a vast country in which they can easily vanish, or just make their way to sanctuary cities, can't be described as securing the border.
In Europe, temporary workers eventually became permanent citizens. That is how Germany picked up so many Muslims. Europeans have learned that if you let someone in, they're going to stay. So again all the middle of the road alternatives lead back to the same place. The illegals become legalized and demand for illegal labor remains high.
Illegal immigration is less of a problem than it used to be when our economy was thriving, but it's still a major issue. And the heavy load on social services at the state level is bringing down already burdened state economies, which will have to be bailed out all over again.
Some state governors have chosen enforcement, but Texas governors have traditionally not been in favor of strong enforcement. They do have to win elections, and so does the Republican party. The last time a Texan was in the White House, it took a revolt from his own party to avert immigration reform. And here we are again with a major unsolved problem in the headlights.
Enforcement remains widely unpopular and that's not at all surprising. The America of today is much more a country of immigrants than it used to be, and even for many conservatives, deportation is a non-starter. Which just leaves tightening current border security, which can mean anything from talking about building a wall to sending up some drones to help the border patrol spot one out of a thousand crossers. Mostly it means nothing at all.
Deportation isn't all that unfeasible, but few politicians are ready to accept the political risk of it. Republicans are still courting the Latino vote, and while there's more diversity and division within the Latino community on illegal immigration than conventional wisdom would have it, it still tends to lean in favor of some form of legalization.
That leaves us with the current state of the situation where the government occasionally pretends to enforce the law, and the public pretends to nod approvingly. But at the same time, failing to address the problem makes the long term prospects for American economic and political viability fairly dim.
Americans don't think in terms of cultures anymore, they think in terms of systems anymore, which makes it hard to formulate a compelling argument against illegal immigration. If people from a failed state move here, then they're exchanging one political system for another, which means that once they cast their vote, they're Americans. Of course it doesn't work that way.
The American system is its own culture, but it is also shaped by the cultures of immigrants. Move enough of Mexico to the United States, and the United States will be a lot more like Mexico. It's an indisputable truth that hardly gets addressed. There are good things that will come of that, but more bad ones, considering that Mexico is a failed state with a political culture that is as unworkable as it could possibly be.
The economics of the situation are even worse. Incoming immigrants are unskilled manual labor in a country which is already short of manual unskilled jobs. Latino employment has increased and unemployment has decreased even in the middle of an economic recession. The actual off the books numbers would be even worse.
The Northeast and the West Coast have been bleeding jobs for years. Texas has been picking up jobs and 40 percent of that job growth has been to illegal immigrants. 81 percent were taken by newly arrived immigrants, legal and illegal. Of those 93 percent were not US citizens.Native born American employment in Texas has actually fallen by 5 percent.
Those numbers do come from a decidedly biased source, but they're not all that hard to believe. And they set up a much larger problem. The liberal approach has been to move us to a European style economy with high taxes, a welfare state, natives that have three degrees and no jobs, while the jobs go to immigrants. Add on the bubbles to provide a temporary prosperity before a recession sets in and the picture is complete.
Clearly this isn't working. Bubbles and cheap labor paid for with expensive social services don't work. Neither does going into hock to pay for spending which will eventually come due. After inflating the cost of labor, illegal immigrants are a loophole that allow many businesses to cut costs at a high price. The high price comes due when the cost of a social safety net that native workers can't afford to maintain is realized.
Then add on crime rates. There's no reason for illegal immigrants to work off the books and there's no reason why off the books labor shouldn't be criminal. Smuggling drugs pays better than being a busboy. So does stealing and stripping copper. We have some job growth in mining, but there's plenty in illegal mining too.
Immigration reform advocates say that legalization can fix the problem, but as long as Mexico is a bleeding wound and its economy is tethered to money sent home by immigrants, there's no reason to believe that's the case. We can't legalize everyone and so long as the demand remains, the supply will be there. It's the drug war all over again.
We have a high cost of labor, some of which goes to a social safety net, which employers would like to bypass. Liberals want the safety net, but they also want the illegal immigration.
Republicans who adopt this contradictory reasoning are defending the indefensible. We can have the social safety net or illegal immigration, but we can't have both. So long as the social safety net makes illegal immigration appealing to employers and illegals, then illegal immigration is here to stay. And the added cost of illegal immigration to a social safety net which they take from, but do not pay into, will bring down the social safety net.
We can deregulate everything, in which case Americans will be left with no jobs and no social safety net. Or we can regulate everything, which would mean an expensive social safety and some jobs, or we can keep trying for a halfway solution. But no solution that does not address this problem is even worth talking about.
But since immigration and the social safety net are both popular, then politicians can't point out that you can't really indefinitely combine both. Most Americans of both parties will choose the social safety net over illegal immigration, but they won't get that choice. And that's the real problem.
The last time we had this debate over the cost of cheap labor and its importance to certain sectors of the economy at the expensive of native jobs, it ended in a civil war. Slavery was just one means of getting cheap labor. The full moral and economic cost of slavery is incalculable. It nearly destroyed America. And the price of illegal immigration may end up being even higher.
Does illegal immigration matter? Absolutely. Are we likely to seriously address it? Unlikely. The issue is wrapped up in race and in the hypocrisy of corporations who donate to the Republican party but oppose immigration reform, and corporations who donate to the Democrats and support the social safety net, both of whom leave a mess that everyone will have to clean up.
As long as Mexico remains a pipeline for cheap off the books labor, and as long as a social safety net increases the cost of domestic labor-- the problem will remain crying out for a solution.