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As Long as We Remember...

April 19, 2007

The Crux of the Matter

Tony Soltero

One of the most common arguments that employers use to justify the hiring of illegal immigrants is that "you can't find an American citizen to do the work." This is repeated so often by those who game the system that it's retransmitted in the media without question. But it's a completely inaccurate statement as it stands - it's in need of a small adjustment.

Here's the adjustment: "You can't find an American citizen to do the work at the wages we're offering." Now, that's a lot closer to the truth.

There are two ways to resolve this problem. An employer can either adjust his wage offering upward, to the point where American citizens (or legitimate green-card holders) would be willing to apply, or he can dip into the underground economy and hire illegal immigrants.

The former is an example of something called "free-market economics;" the latter is an example of lawbreaking. If I offered a million dollars to have my lawn mowed, I'd have American applicants up the kazoo. Obviously, I wouldn't have to offer anywhere near that much - but there is a point at which the native applicant pool will dry up; and it's significantly higher than the going rate for illegal immigrants.

And this, in a nutshell, is why all the talk about "immigration reform" in America is just that - talk. There's never going to be any real immigration reform, because the core issue - that many American employers are simply trying to get around paying competitive wages - is never going to be effectively addressed. The companies that hire illegal immigrants have a lot more power in the system than either the immigrants or the Americans who would otherwise perform those jobs. And these companies are making a killing with the immigration situation exactly the way it is now.

Now, one must not assume malice on the part of every employer who hires illegal aliens. In many (if not most) cases they are honest, patriotic businessmen who would love to follow the law and hire Americans; however, they are forced into the practice by unscrupulous, unregulated competitors who undercut them by running virtual sweatshops.

It's an appalling situation when some businesses feel they have to break the law to stay alive. It's comparable to steroid use in baseball - juice up or get left behind. But as long as our laws remain targeted at the immigrants themselves, rather than at predatory employers, this situation isn't going to change.

But, ah, you say. If we force employers to hire American citizens, with all of the labor protections they enjoy under the law, then we'll have to pay more for goods and services!

Well, perhaps, though that ripple effect is far less pronounced than many people claim it is. According to a USDA study conducted by Chinkook Lee and Brian O'Roark, which focused on the food-service industry, a one-dollar increase in the minimum wage adds about two cents to the cost of the average food product.

The same arguments were made about the abolition of slavery and restrictions on child labor; they were also supposed to be "bad for the economy." A truly competitive market would stifle inflationary pressures, such as they may be - the problem is that too many of our industries aren't particularly competitive anymore.

But those who advocate draconian crackdowns on illegal immigration are trying to have it both ways if they also complain that we shouldn't re-orient immigration law to focus on employers because of the (speculative) inflationary pressures that would stem from requiring employers to follow the law.

That's an intellectually dishonest combination of arguments - and most politicians know this, which is why the two arguments are almost never made to the same audiences. We either want immigrants and their concomitant benefits and costs to our nation or we don't.

Our immigration-law enforcement is a jumble and a mishmash, focusing on short-term "solutions" that do no favors to either immigrants (legal or illegal) or American workers. Penalties are harsh on those who risk their lives and work hard for low pay to escape desperate existences in their native countries, and light on those who enable this system to continue and profit greatly from it.

Politicians and pundits love to demagogue on immigration, because it provides easy opportunities for race-baiting and xenophobia, themes that play well with a significant (if diminishing) sector of the electorate. But real immigration reform, the kind that actually protects the interests of American workers, is almost never addressed; and it won't be because it would threaten the interests of a few well-heeled, politically powerful elites.

We need to focus immigration reform on the employers. That's the proper approach that would benefit American workers, legal immigrants, and law-abiding businesses. Do we have the will to do so? That remains to be seen.

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