Friday, March 31, 2006

Dealing with Illegal Immigrants 

There are several valid yet seemingly contradictory views on the current debate concerning illegal immigration. As is often the danger, though, politicians seem poised to do the simple and defer the difficult but necessary in order to claim the quick victory.

Let’s accept, for the purposes of this discussion, the assertion that there are 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. And let’s also accept that a large number of these are gainfully employed. On the one side, many claim these workers are necessary for the economy by doing jobs that Americans won’t do while the other side disagrees with this characterization. It is important to note, however, that is we woke up one morning and all 11 million had snuck back across the border in the night their former employers would, indeed, have a difficult time finding Americans to do these jobs, if for no other reason simply because the current unemployment rate (<5%) shows practically full employment. In other words, there are no willing American workers left. The market dynamics will certainly result in higher wages in lower skilled positions, in turn demanding greater compensation for goods and services derived. From that alone I think those who claim the illegal workers fulfill a vital role in our economy have a strong point. While a policy of strict enforcement is certainly an option, I cannot help but conclude that such a hard-line position will have short-term and possible long-term effects on the price of most goods and services in the U.S. Are we ready to accept the inflation that seems likely to follow such a decision?

Looking from the other side, though, anyone who thinks that a shortage of workers alone is the driving dynamic behind those who hire illegal immigrants is deluding himself or herself. To employ another mental exercise in the extreme, if we woke up tomorrow and magically every illegal worker suddenly had a valid work permit many of the employers would find themselves in different but still economically challenging circumstances. Without the incentives that exist to employ an off-the-books work force, a labor pool untouched by local, state and federal requirements, would all those 11 millions remain employed? Or would the more unscrupulous owners go out, instead, in search of more illegal workers to replace those lost to the world of the legitimate? There is no logical conclusion other than that conveying legal status on those currently working illegally will not, by itself, stop the practice of hiring illegal workers or significantly lessen the demand for such workers. Without real efforts to better secure the borders and identify and punish those hiring illegally there will be no lasting change to the flow of illegal aliens in to the U.S.

Personally, I think the right answer is a lot like what the President has suggested, but with a bit more teeth. A guest worker program serves two purposes. From a security standpoint it allows better visibility on those we say are OK to come in, better allowing limited border resources to focus on the potentially criminal and security threats. From an economic standpoint, it allows us to use a transient labor pool, increasing the pool to permit more rapid economic growth in periods of high employment and lessening the pool to provide additional employment opportunities for Americans in more austere times. The two critical factors for success, though, are control of the program and control of the borders. As I pointed out before, one attractive factor in hiring illegal workers is the freedom from government interference. Now, I don’t advocate any sort of apartheid that allows employers to treat foreign workers inhumanely, but should a farmer have to complete a dozen forms for each worker and pay uncounted fees and taxes you are more likely to see him back on the corner at 5:00 a.m. looking for ten hands to work that day. And if the border is not adequately secured there will always be more men on that corner than farmers looking. As such, step one must be to stop the current influx to eliminate that dynamic. Any effort that does not address this factor first is just looking for an easy political win.

But, assuming we do stop the flow we are still left with the question of the 11 million. It is very easy to say, "they broke the law, they have to pay," and it is not an unreasonable position to take. We have laws and they should be obeyed. To provide preference to those who do not do so is wrong. However, in addition to being blind justice should be just. As such, it is a very valid question to ask if is a just punishment to deport a man who has worked hard for many years, contributed to his community, married and raised children and possibly grandchildren. I don’t necessarily have the answers, but feel that it is important to approach whatever solution is reached with an understanding of both responsibility to the law and justice to the one who violated it. And, if we ensure that the first priority of a strong border to reduce the current flow to a trickle is acted on with serious intent, then it makes the latter issue less emotional.

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