Undocumented workers are integral part of system
SOONER OR LATER we'll have to face the facts on immigration, legal or otherwise. The United States is going to have more immigrants, mostly from developing countries. Our history is built on regular infusions of new labor, new skills and new thinking. Simply accommodating ourselves to the process of arriving peoples keeps us in touch with the diversity of cultures that make up the global mosaic.
And we need more immigrants. This is a paradox in the recovery of the Bush administration economy. Economic growth during the past year has meant that the attractiveness of the United States for immigrants has gone from "push" (escape from Mexico) to "pull" (the U.S. economy is inviting them). "Invitation" is presented in the lack of enforcement of immigration laws on businesses that employ undocumented workers. The pro-business Bush administration has an odd track record here.
Like Russia, Japan and Europe, the native population of the United States isn't growing at a fast enough pace to fill our employment needs. Russia's failure to provide comprehensive public health programs for its population has resulted in "a shrinking work force, destabilized families, strains on national security and a drain on the gross national product," according to a May 14 New York Times article. To deal with this population crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin is proposing to pay $9,000 to mothers for giving birth, along with infant allowances and subsidies for day care. Is this where we want to go in the United States? With a promise of a job in the fields for every child?
The U.S. population is growing primarily as a result of births in the minority and immigrant communities. We don't like to think about it (this is a political correctness problem), but there is stratification of labor, mostly along education lines, where the tough jobs in agriculture, manufacturing and services are taken by those without recourse into the white-collar world of employment. Immigrants historically have jumped at these opportunities as a way to get a foot in the door.
This isn't going to change, even if, as one minority labor leader suggested, we have a minimum wage for these jobs of $20 per hour. The U.S.-born unemployed in America do not think first about having just any job to help plant their feet. Immigrants, and especially illegal immigrants, are willing to take virtually anything, including the most dirty and back-breaking jobs. It is not a matter of wages; it is a matter of work ethic that the illegal immigrants seem to have and the native born do not.
A good share of the effort to reject the illegal immigrants is simply basic xenophobia. Taken in the context of history, fencing the border with Mexico doesn't really make much sense. We really want those Mexicans to cross into the United States and stay. How will they do that around the fences?
Think about this seriously. If the labor market wasn't being filled by illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican border, these positions would have to be filled by someone else. If we were to bring more agricultural and service workers into the United States through a regularized process, the resulting body of immigrants would be less Mexican and more Arab, Muslim, South Asian and African. This might be more fair, but for an idea of how this would affect American society, take a look at Europe. This is an issue of culture, language and religion. Samuel Huntington ("Who Are We? 2004") and others have argued that Mexican culture is not readily compatible with the Anglo-Protestant culture in which the United States has prospered. This might be true, but it is certainly more compatible than Iraqi culture.
If the Mexicans weren't coming in illegally, we'd have to process them all and then keep track of them. What would the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (the successor to the Immigration and Naturalization Service under the Department of Homeland Security) have to look like to process the 500 workers per day who are currently sneaking into the country illegally? What would it cost? There are roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. By any process other than deporting them all (a costly and probably impossible task in itself), there will be a substantial increase in the size of the government agencies designed to monitor them.
One more irony. The protectionist policies of the Bush government with regard to the agricultural industry have meant that there are jobs in the fields and processing plants; jobs that Americans have not taken, for whatever reason. A part of agricultural competitiveness is that where mechanization is not possible, manual labor is necessary but costs still have to be kept as low as possible to compete in a globalized economy. New immigrants, many of them undocumented, are taking these jobs at low wages and keeping America competitive. Were they legal and wages higher, the administration would have to be more protectionist, subsidies would have to be increased and we'd probably end up increasing our agricultural imports from Mexico.
By making such an issue of illegal immigrants from Mexico, we're discouraging all immigrants about life in the United States, including those we desperately need. The issue is plugging up the immigration system for applicants who have math and science skills, where the United States has a serious deficiency, as well as for laborers. On the one hand, many claim that the education system is being overburdened by the children of illegal immigrants. On the other hand, technical skills have not historically (the past 20 years) been produced by that same system, and we are importing our technological capability from India, East Asia and elsewhere -- legal immigrants for the most part, but often pushing the envelope of the immigration system.
Many of the complaints about illegal immigrants have to do with their utilization of public education services. But this is what all immigrant groups have done as the means of assimilating and of making their way up the economic ladder. Some states (California, Oregon, Kansas) have decided to grant in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants as a means of moving their resident populations forward in skills and contributions to their economies.
What recourse do we have? We're now in the process of fencing and militarizing our borders, including our port facilities and coastal regions. We're building fortress America. There is still the Russian option; start paying American citizens to have more children. The problem, of course, is that by "Americans" we would have to mean only caucasian (specifically white) Americans, since blacks and Hispanic Americans already are out-reproducing the whites by a significant ratio. Despite the efforts of many in Congress to manage the ethnic balance in the United States by playing the national security card, this won't happen. We actually want, as well as need, those Mexicans. And we might end up thinking fondly of the good old days when Mexicans could just sneak across the border and their smiling faces would show up taking care of all those urgent tasks we didn't want to do ourselves.
Llewellyn D. Howell is director and senior research fellow of the Asia Pacific Risk Institute, College of Business Administration, at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.