April 16, 2006

A Reasoned Discourse on Immigration

Illegal immigration (overwhelmingly from Mexico) is currently the biggest thing in the news, but unfortunately, much of the rhetoric that surrounds the debate is nonsensical. The issues are complex and difficult, mixing economics, law, culture, and politics; this piece is not an attempt to put forth a comprehensive solution, but instead to lay the groundwork for a more reasoned discussion.

Here’s the reality:

1. The term “undocumented” is an insult to people’s intelligence. People who sneak into the U.S. have broken the law and are here illegally. They are illegal immigrants. If I were to sneak into Mexico, China, or Canada and stay there, I would be an illegal immigrant. Undocumented implies that someone is simply waiting for documents that they are entitled to, which illegal immigrants are not.

2. For those who make the case that the Western U.S. was stolen from Mexico (which it was), I would ask them whether they are willing to give Mexico back to the indigenous people of Mexico (since the Mexican territory was stolen from them by the Spanish). And exactly where would we start, since the Aztecs conquered other native tribes that came before them? The point is that playing the “conquista” game gets us nowhere.

3. Most of the fault for illegal immigration lies with the Mexican government, one of the most regressive and corrupt in the world (especially with respect to other middle income countries). The elites who govern Mexico are the greatest beneficiaries of illegal emigration to the U.S., since they are able to export Mexico’s poor while at the same tome earn foreign currency through remittances.

4. The reason people come to the U.S. is entirely for their economic self-interest. Let’s drop the rhetoric that Americans owe a debt of gratitude to illegal immigrants for picking our crops and mowing our lawns. Most immigrants work hard and provide goods and services, but this is no different than workers in all occupations, whether legal or not.

5. There are two fundamental equity issues that are rarely discussed. The first is that the large numbers of illegal immigrants from Mexico decrease the levels of legal immigration into the U.S. from other parts of the world. The question that should be asked is why poor Mexicans are more deserving of opportunities in the U.S. than poor Asians, Africans, or poor people from anywhere else. Second, illegal immigration from Mexico harms Mexicans who are trying to get here legally. Currently, it takes 15+ years for a legal Mexican immigrant to get a family member to join them in the U.S.; this would decrease dramatically if illegal immigration were curtailed.

Now to the other side….

6. We in the U.S. are largely culpable for the illegal immigration influx: not because we don’t have strong enough border control, but because we do not enforce labor laws at the employer level. The business community has consistently blocked legislation and reform that would curtail its ability to get cheap labor from Mexico. Without serious enforcement, including significant penalties (perhaps even jail time) for hiring illegal immigrants, the wage differential between Mexico and the U.S. is simply too high to stop the flow of workers across the border.

7. Whereas the Mexican government continues to neglect its poor and export them to the U.S., we have allowed illegal immigration to whittle away at the wages at the low-end of our pay scale. This makes it much harder for our own low-income, less educated workers to advance and support themselves.

8. If we were to seriously crack down on the hiring of illegal immigrants it is likely that some industries would contract. Some farmers might switch to labor-saving devices, but some would probably go out of business. In addition, some prices for services would likely rise. At the same time, areas where social services are under strain due to illegal immigration would see their financial prospects improve.

So what is to be done?

The first thing is to face the facts, many of which I have tried to lay out. The next is to think more broadly. We need to have a national conversation about what would be the optimal or ideal amount of immigration to the U.S.? What types of workers? From what parts of the world? This could be looked into by a group of economists, demographers, and business leaders with an eye on trying to balance the needs of different groups in society, protect the public interest, and maximize U.S. economic growth and competitiveness.

Once we have a blueprint for a well-thought out immigrant plan for the future, we could then develop the mix of policies that could help us at least approximate this optimal strategy. Anything that fails to look at the bigger picture will lead to the hodgepodge of reactionary policies, polemical rhetoric, and impractical solutions that typify just about everything currently being discussed in Washington and around the country.

Jason Scorse