The current debate over illegal immigration should sound familiar to anyone who read our in-depth report on the subject, "Borderline Insanity," in the October 2005 issue.
A fair and thorough reading of the evidence in that story would lead most to conclude that efforts to boost border security have at best failed and at worst backfired. Meanwhile, enforcement against employers who hire illegal immigrants has all but evaporated under the current business-cozy administration. While the proposals that sparked this debate in Congress threw still more money at the black hole of border patrolling (or, even less practical, building a sort of modern-day Berlin Wall along the Mexican border), the most promising measures also attempted to ratchet up enforcement against employers. Until we address the "demand" side of the illegal-immigration equation, the "supply" will continue to risk lives and bankroll "coyotes" in order to fill jobs on this side of the border.
As the debate has roiled and Latino marchers have taken to the streets, a popular refrain has been that illegal immigrants "do jobs that Americans won't do." Sympathetic as many of the facts in this debate are to the plight of illegal immigrants, that claim doesn't hold up under scrutiny. More accurate would be to say that illegal workers do jobs that Americans won't do for such low wages. As our story noted, some economists believe that illegal workers thereby depress US wages and hurt the incomes of others at the lower end of the pay scale—the less-educated plus a disproportionate share of African-Americans and, ironically, Hispanic citizens.
Research by the Center for Immigration Studies says that many of those workers on the lower rungs of the economic ladder have simply given up in the face of illegal-alien competition. "Natives with relatively little education are leaving the labor market in droves," says the center's Steven Camarota. "This should not look like this at this point in an economic recovery."
Moreover, it's not broadly true that, as President Bush told Congress in urging support for his own guest-worker plan, "There are people here working hard for jobs Americans won't do." As USA Today recently reported, Census Bureau data show that 17 million Americans work in the very industries where illegal immigrants most commonly take jobs. According to a Pew Research poll, 16 percent of Americans know someone who's lost his or her job to an illegal immigrant. In fact, there are 2.3 million unemployed Americans whose last job was in one of five categories that employ a total of 7.9 million illegal immigrants. American citizens of all ethnicities will work hard in those jobs—if they're given a chance and if they're paid a living wage.
So who benefits from the unchecked hiring of lower-paid illegal immigrants? Not surprisingly, employers. Harvard economist George Borjas estimates that American workers lose $278 billion a year because of illegal immigration, while businesses gain $300 billion: "There's a huge redistribution away from workers to people who use immigrants."
As this issue's lead story covers efforts to help the working poor by hiking the minimum wage on the local level, those most sympathetic to underpaid workers should perhaps take a second look at illegal immigration. If you really want to help Americans at the bottom of the wage scale, you have to stop employers from using illegal workers as a cheap escape hatch. Arguably, boosting the minimum wage will only encourage the employment of undocumented workers at sub-minimum pay.
Another irony in this debate manifested itself in the massive protests against the misguided House GOP legislation that would make illegal immigration a felony. Our October story should reassure those who fear that the current wave of immigrants is not being assimilated into the American melting pot as rapidly as earlier "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." But that was not what US television viewers saw, especially in the earliest protest rallies (before they wisely got a star-spangled makeover). Why would people who claim that they want to be Americans be waving the Mexican flag? What message does that send to American citizens, be they recent legal immigrants or residents for generations?
As columnist Charles Krauthammer points out, Martin Luther King Jr.—whose civil-rights legacy the protesters invoke—"always appealed to the better angels of America's nature." That's not the approach suggested by immigration protestors waving signs (often in Spanish) such as "Honkies are illegal aliens, too!" and "This is our continent, not yours!" As Krauthammer observes, "It is all the more important for illegals, whose claims rest not on justice but on compassion, to appeal to American generosity, openness and idealism."
It's also sadly ironic that many protesters at the rallies skipped school or work—the very places they're demanding a right to be. The proposed "Great American Boycott" on the first of this month, in which illegal immigrants are urged to play hooky from work and withhold their spending from the US economy, is equally unfortunate. Why opt out of the very system, even for a day, that you're making a claim—albeit in violation of the law—to be a part of?
Again, it's hard to read our earlier coverage of illegal immigration without concluding that the US must make some sort of accommodation and create a path to citizenship for the more than 11 million people illegally in this country. Even if you're not moved by the plight of those seeking a better life here, sheer practicality is persuasive. But the logic of that argument is emotionally undercut by protesters displaying pique instead of patriotism, by those who spurn the very opportunities they're demanding. That way lies a backlash that will build a wall not only along the border but between our communities.
Despite the protests, Congressional politics-playing and a lack of presidential leadership, the "better angels" of Americans' nature will eventually prevail in the divisive immigration debate, as they have on other emotionally fraught issues. The generosity, openness and idealism that Krauthammer cites will win out over fear, ethnic prejudice and the political cravenness of those who would divide rather than unite us. But the path toward that solution is not paved with economic myths, misguided boycotts. . . or the Mexican flag.
Desert Exposure editor David A. Fryxell is the