Sunday, May 08, 2005

Who’s Calling Whom Illegal? The Need to Reframe the Discourse on Immigration

We’ve all heard members of the political left claim that undocumented workers contribute more to society than they take; their low wage labor reduces the cost to consumers of food and child care (among many goods and services), while undocumented workers’ Social Security payments will not be recouped, which ends up contributing a significant amount to the Social Security trust fund. When you talk to the right wing, you hear the opposite argument: that migrant workers take more than they give. They drive up health care costs (as they are mostly uninsured), put a strain on public education, and break the law by being here in the first place, which poses a threat to security. No doubt, this terse summary leaves out a lot of claims on both sides, but my purpose is to cut through these arguments by offering a pragmatic but painful remedy called law enforcement.

The Minutemen, a group of private watchdog citizens assembled along the Arizona border, agree with me but have their eye on the wrong ball. Each day the Minutemen spend combing the desert is tantamount to 1440 wasted minutes. Their cavalier efforts at best inflict pain and humiliation on workers and their families, while their presence interferes with legitimate law enforcement agencies. The Minutemen ought to shift their stakeouts to the only place where effective law enforcement will occur: the location of employment itself.

Get it straight: migrant labor comes to the US because opportunities for employment are provided. And who provides such opportunities? Let’s look at agriculture in the US as an example. Undocumented migrant workers are economically rational to the extent that they are willing to pay a high personal price to cross the border if better jobs are available. US farmers who face stiff competition from abroad (even with government subsidies) are also rational when they try to reduce costs by hiring cheaper labor. Labor amounts to 50-70% of the cost of producing strawberries, for instance. A rational cost-cutting firm will try to lower this cost. The employers’ problem, however, is that hiring undocumented workers is illegal, and there are penalties to be faced by firms that don’t adhere to regulations.

But what are the penalties for hiring undocumented workers? The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) threatens deviant employers with a fine of $250, should they be caught violating immigration code. If a firm were to commit such an offense a third time, the fine could go up to $3000. And Congress was sure to give the bill teeth. In California where there are over 1 million employers in agriculture, there is funding for approximately 200 federal inspectors, so farmers should beware—big government is watching over your shoulder!

Sarcasm aside, it is clear that the IRCA does little to dissuade illegal immigration. In fact, it does more to encourage it, since employers know that when they get caught the punitive costs that they face are relatively low. And this point is largely moot since there are widespread industries devoted to providing workers with false documents, which lets employers off the hook. Thus, we need to reframe the issue with the coining of a new term: instead of focusing on so-called illegal immigrants, we need to crack down on “illegal employers” who are unlikely to get caught, and even when they do get caught, are willing to pay the fines to keep labor costs low.[i]

Instead of joining the Minutemen at the border, call your representative and ask for more enforcement at the place of employment. This literally means cracking down on farmers who hire undocumented workers directly or indirectly. Surely, if hiring an undocumented worker were a felony, we would witness a massive decline in immigration. Ah, but why hasn’t Congress thought of that? As it turns out, members of Congress are rational too (in a material sense). Have you ever heard of the farm lobby? The meat packing lobby? The list goes on and on.

Congress has not revamped federal laws regarding migrant workers, and they have not changed the penalties for employers who break the law. The reality is that current demand for migrant labor is high, not just for jobs in agriculture, but also for the service work that will keep the Baby Boom population alive. The ultimate irony surrounding the Minutemen controversy is that Baby Boomers, many of whom will retire in places like Arizona, will absolutely “depend” (brand-name pun intended) on workers—how can I put this? —to provide them with “daily services” in their nursing home beds. And these workers are unlikely to be US citizens, as the population growth rate in the US is under 1% (source: CIA Worldfact Book).

What is to be done? Recently addressing the ongoing and potential efficacy of the Minutemen, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said it best: "They've cut down the crossing of illegal immigrants a huge percentage. So it just shows that it works when you go and make an effort and when you work hard. It's a doable thing." I largely agree but strongly suggest that the target of such ‘hard work’ be redefined. At present, the Minutemen have decided to park their RVs in the desert. This is a good idea for catching magnificent Southwestern sunsets. And the tailgate barbeques are probably excellent as well. I suggest that these RVs be re-parked along the parameters of the fields where farmers don’t play by the rules. They should be re-parked in the affluent, quiet cul-de-sacs where nannies work under the radar. Only then can we deal with the social and economic ills that illegal employers create.



[i] If obtaining fake identification is relatively easy, how can employers distinguish between legal and illegal workers? This raises a separate public policy question not addressed in this piece. The problem is complicated, but the short answer is that empoyers can exercise due dilligence by running background checks and verifying the authenticity of documents including green cards, drivers licences, birth certificates, and social security cards.


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