Jeremy Beck's picture


  by  Jeremy Beck

In recent years, the New York Times has reliably reported the best arguments for immigration expansion and periodic legalizations, but its story this week may be the furthest the Gray Lady has gone toward presenting arguments in favor of perpetual illegal immigration. Miriam Jordan reports:

"For years, policymakers have talked about shutting off the influx of undocumented workers. But the economy has grown to rely on them.

"Ending illegal immigration, say many of those who have studied the issue, could mean that American workers would lose their jobs, companies would close and the economy would contract."

The story, if taken seriously, has profound implications. First, there are the ethical considerations of propping up an economy on the backs of millions of vulnerable workers from other countries. And then there are the sheer practical questions: If our economy relies on unauthorized labor to thrive, why crack down on employers who illegally employ them? Why spend billions of dollars a year to enforce immigration limits if - as one economist claims in the story - doing so effectively would "definitely trigger a recession"? Perhaps we shouldn't.

If we opened up the U.S. labor market to hundreds of thousands or even millions more people every year, labor-intensive industries (and shareholders) would surely benefit from the expanded supply of labor. American consumers could purchase those products and services at lower prices. The economy would expand naturally along with the population. Newcomers would need cars to get to work. Cities and states would need new roads to accommodate the traffic. (I urge you to question policy makers about the impact the increased population will have on local ecologies and natural resources, as the media has stopped asking). Inequality would rise as the labor cost savings would accrue to the investment class, but an argument could be made that millions of people would still be better off relatively poor in America than in their original countries.

The pithy counter-argument is that employers could just raise wages. Millions of working-age Americans who are employable but not currently employed could be lured back into the labor market by better wages and smarter recruitment. Industries could also make use of labor-saving technology to succeed with fewer, better-paid workers. Critically, either approach would give new Americans a clearer path to the middle-class dream.

But if money talks, are sidelined American workers listening? Not enough of them, according to Jordan's story:

"Steve Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports curbs on immigration, believes that wages would rise and motivate many chronically unemployed Americans to get back to work.

"But wage rates are not the main issue, some economists say, because there still would not be enough Americans willing to do blue-collar jobs."

Ten years ago, Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times that it such claims were "intellectually dishonest":

"The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays -- and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants. Finally, ... our social safety net has more holes in it than it should -- and low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel that safety net. ... Unfortunately, low-skill immigrants don't pay enough taxes to cover the cost of the benefits they receive.

"We shouldn't exaggerate these problems," Krugman wrote. "But modest problems are still real problems, and immigration is becoming a major political issue. What are we going to do about it?"

Today, there are approximately 11 million Americans who "want a job" or are actively seeking one. And there are possibly millions more who could be persuaded back into the labor force under the right conditions. According to The New York Times this spring "...hundreds of thousands of people streamed into the job market, confounding analysts who have insisted that the pool of potential workers has been depleted" -- and that was just the month of February.

For an exercise in cognitive dissonance, compare this from The New York Times earlier this year...

"A rapidly tightening labor market is forcing companies across the country to consider workers they once would have turned away. That is providing opportunities to people who have long faced barriers to employment, such as criminal records, disabilities or prolonged bouts of joblessness." this from Tuesday's story:

"Some Americans are unemployed for a reason

"'Very few of the jobs these immigrants have would be taken by these Americans,' [the economist] Mr. Peri said. 'The ones who are not employed have complicated circumstances like drug addiction, alcohol addiction or criminal records.'"

I'm willing to bet that Mr. Peri's explanation does not cover the more than ten million Americans who want a job or are looking for one, much less the millions more who have dropped out of the labor force. But over the past year, The New York Times has given readers a glimpse of two different visions of what jobless Americans are capable of. The immigration reporting has presented a much bleaker view of their potential than other sections of the newspaper, but that doesn't make it wrong. I personally side with Krugman on Americans' willingness to take any job at the right price. I'd like to see U.S. employers rebuild their recruitment pipelines to reach overlooked and underserved communities. That would probably mean more work (and expense) for employers in certain industries. And I would argue for an American economy sustained by legal labor force. But what do the readers of The New York Times think? Here are the 10 most recommended comments on the story:

There is no job an American won't do, only one she is not being paid enough to do.

I can not believe the intellectually [sic] gymnastics the economists cited here deploy. The labor force participation rate is 63%, if employers could not hire illegal immigrants, then they would be forced to raise wages and lure more people into the workforce. That's econ 101.

America's discontents are many, and probably incurable, but fulfilling the promise of employing its citizens, with the added benefit of higher wages across the board, should be an easy win.

Ok. I'm a liberal and a libertarian around borders. But I'm also someone who spent sixteen years roofing in Florida. And regardless of what an "expert" tells you Americans would roof for appropriate wages.

I'm not sure why the fundamentals of economics break apart when it deals with toilets or roofs.

Roofing used to be a trade that paid very well before a tremendous influx of highly skilled illegal immigrants artificially drove wages down.

I worked with these guys. They were great workers, good people, and their immigration status left them ripe for exploitation that led to being paid LESS in 2006 than I was in 1993.

There are many excellent arguments for allowing immigration including violence caused by American drug prohibition.But we do ourselves zero favors by making patently ridiculous arguments like this.

Every job ever can be filled for the right wage. People will smuggle, murder, clean septic tanks.

And there's no social stigma in construction. If anything the American construction worker is lionized like a Soviet era painting. If roofing paid today what it paid in 1975 you'd have no shortage of Americans willing to do the job.

ONE of the reasons it doesn't is illegal immigration and unscrupulous employers.

At a time when the facts are less and less important I'd like the times to do better.

The bottom line seems to be we need immigrants because we can pay them less.

This has been the American story forever. Each new wave of immigrants ensured a new cheap labor source for America. Then after WWI and a law that seriously curtailed immigration (albeit a method we don't want to repeat), Black Americans finally got their chance at work other than sharecropping. They moved North and thanks to the strengthening labor movement -- a result of a tighter labor supply -- were ready to take the expanding industrial jobs. Progressive legislation through the New Deal, and improving wages and benefits marked the 1930s to the 1970s.

With the immigration act of 1965 immigration increased and American wages fell. Of course, is was more complex than this, but the value and strength of labor depends on the supply, and that is left our or dismissed in most discussion on immigration.

There is an obvious solution to this problem: fix the visa system for temporary workers! These workers are coming to the US because there are jobs available. They are coming illegally because they generally cannot get visas to come legally. The H1A visa system does not work for either employers or employees. If the system worked, both employers and immigrants would be happy to be legal. The problem is that it is politically unpopular to admit that our economy needs immigrant labor to fill the jobs, particularly those that do not require formal schooling and do require manual labor.

We also need to admit that many of these jobs are not actually low-skill - they require a set of skills that is not based in academics, but must still be learned. People in rural areas of low-income countries learn farming, cooking, housekeeping, construction, childcare as children. American children often do not learn these skills, particularly if they grow up in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods. If we want American young people to be able to fill the manual labor jobs, we need to provide skills training in the cities, and then build connections between the skills training programs and the employers.

The comfort of the very rich has always depended upon an abundant supply of the very poor.

Of course there are jobs that "Americans" won't do. I'm a construction employer who pays $50 per hour for labor-intensive work and I am having a heck of a time filling positions. Young Americans do not want to work that hard and their schools are all pushing the college track to low-paying corporate desk jobs.

I don't believe it, sorry. It's such a lie that "American employers can't find American citizens to perform jobs."

With respect to farming, perhaps. But the construction field has A LOT of workers who are unemployed, both for skilled and unskilled trades. Illegal immigrants take jobs from legal citizens in this field, particularly in the area of residential construction. Dishonest employers make profits by hiring illegal immigrants and dodge having to pay payroll taxes. Everyone in the construction field, from developers to general contractors to architects to contractors know about, but everyone turns a blind eye.

This story makes no mention of a key fact in agricultural areas: because of industrial scale farming and the economics involved in big farm operations, a lot of rural America has been denuded of the population who once lived there. You can't take a farm labor job if you live 200 miles away and you can't afford to move to the countryside on the wages being paid. The rise of undocumented workers went right along with the rise of industrial scale farming. More workers from outside, mainly Mexico, rushed to fill the void.

This news story says the following: "...wage rates are not the main issue, some economists say, because there still would not be enough Americans willing to do blue-collar jobs."

How does anyone, including economists, know that native Americans won't take these dirty jobs? This is a proposition that has never been tested. What if the wages were doubled and working conditions monitored to insure that workers were not being abused? What if there were decent housing and good school available in rural areas instead of the downward spiral these parts of the nation have endured?

Another factor seldom mentioned that discourages young people from taking low paying jobs is that many now refuse temporary employment because it won't help them build a resume for college admission. Many are determined only to add credits that will assist in getting into a good college. They pass over one of the most important aspects in adjusting to adult life, employment.

"Like undocumented workers across the country... they used counterfeit Social Security and green cards to get hired." Counterfeit Social Security and green cards often use stolen identification numbers stolen. This is identity theft. The legitimate owners of those numbers often run into problems because the identity theft. The IRS comes after them for not paying taxes on income they never earned. Crimes committed by the illegal green card holders can be credited to the legitimate holders, putting their residency in the US at risk. American poor economically suffer because of the dominance of illegal aliens in some jobs. 40 years ago many low skilled occupations such as construction, gardening, roofing, and child care, were dominated by African Americans and others at the bottom of the economic ladder. However, employers discovered they could hire undocumented workers for much less. Even better, employers could commit labor violations against the undocumented workers, such as wage theft with little or no consequence. Unlike a legal resident, the undocumented fear going to the authorities because they don't want to be deported. Employers came to prefer hiring the undocumented, forcing wages and working conditions down to the point where those jobs were no longer viable for legal residents. Within a generation many entry level occupations once dominated by African Americans disappeared. Call them 'illegal' or 'undocumented' workers, our poor foot the bill.

Years ago, the author Molly Ivens put forth a simple and (procedurally) easy course of action to eliminate the entire 'undocumented worker' issue: 1) Go to a Fortune 100 company, and find an 'illegal' (hint: look for mops or a broom); 2) arrest their supervisor for breaking the immigrant labor laws, and give them a bargain of a suspended sentence in exchange for testimony against THEIR supervisor; 3) repeat until you have arrested people in the C-suites, at which point you prosecute them all, and only send the C-suite occupants to prison.

Rinse and repeat - going through the Fortune 100 until a sufficiently powerful CEO calls up their congress-critters to get the laws changed.
The net result of all this turmoil would be an increase in support for all of our laws, and improved wages for every worker in America, as the corporations would no longer have cheap and easily intimidated labor to drive down wages.

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project

Illegal Immigration

Updated: Fri, Dec 28th 2018 @ 7:30am EST

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