Sunday, December 4, 2011

Illegal Immigration: Hysteria over a Nonexistent Problem

Everyone seems to agree that the number of illegal immigrants in the US is about 11 million. The responses to the existence of these people, and the beliefs about the effects of their being in this country vary considerably. Several states, most notably Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama, have enacted strict laws intended to catch illegals and punish those who might have dealings with them. The conventional wisdom has come to assume that the immigrants incur a considerable expense in our society, and they take jobs away from legal residents. One has an image of hordes of poor Hispancs just waiting for the opportunity to sneak across the border and cause trouble in our country.

Let us address the issue of "hordes" first. A Washington Post article tells us that that the Border Patrol nabbed 327,577 people trying to cross the border into the US illegally in the last fiscal year. An article in The Economist puts this number in perspective by providing this graph.

As border enforcement is enhanced, fewer are being apprehended. The logical conclusion is that an ever smaller number are making the attempt. Historically, the number of illegals has depended on the relative economic prospects on each side of the border. Right now, the US looks less desirable as a destination than it was ten years ago. The number apprehended in 2010 was 447,731. That indicates a drop of 27% from 2010 to 2011. The Washington Post article reminds us that many illegal immigrants eventually return home, and suggests that the net flux across the border has already reached zero. If these trends continue, perhaps the number of illegal immigrants will begin to fall without any assistance from punitive state laws.

Several articles have appeared recently focusing on Alabama and the effects of its recent legislation. An article in Businessweek, Alabama Rethinks Its Harsh Immigration Law, provides an interesting anecdote concerning Mercedes-Benz and one of its employees.

"On Nov. 16, a European businessman paying a visit to his company’s manufacturing plant near Tuscaloosa, Ala., was pulled over for driving a rental car without a tag. The police officer asked the man for his license, but the only paperwork he had with him was a German I.D. card. Anywhere else in the nation, the cop might have issued the man a citation. Not in Alabama, where a strict new law requires police to look into the immigration status of people detained for routine traffic violations. Because the man couldn’t prove he had the right to be in the U.S., he was arrested and hauled off to the police station."

"As it turned out, the businessman was an executive with Mercedes-Benz, one of Alabama’s prized manufacturers. The Mercedes plant employs 3,400 people, and the company’s much-heralded decision in 1993 to build cars in the state encouraged Hyundai, Honda, and Toyota to follow."

This was clearly an embarrassment for the state. Among other unintended consequences is included the fact that not only illegal immigrants left the state in response, but a number of legal immigrants also pulled up stakes and took off rather than face the prospect of continual harassment about their status. The new law has also rendered employers confused about their new obligations, and left a number bereft of sufficient employees to continue their businesses. Apparently, even the governor, Robert Bentley, the most vocal advocate of the immigrant measures, is having second thoughts.

"Alabama officials hope changing the law will also allow them to change the subject. The state has worked hard to convince foreign companies that Alabama is a welcoming place to outsiders. ‘Thirty years after the events surrounding civil rights in Alabama we successfully recruited Mercedes-Benz, and the biggest hurdle we had to overcome … was the perception of racism here,’ says former Governor Jim Folsom Jr., a Democrat. That’s still a touchy subject in Alabama, and recent stories about immigrants abandoning the state and cops cracking down on foreigners have brought unflattering comparisons to the past. ‘One of my concerns is that this bill opened up some old wounds that it didn’t need to open,’ says Dial. ‘All this stuff from the ’50s and ’60s—Alabama is not like that anymore. The unfortunate thing about this whole bill is that it’s painted us what we’re not’."

Every law will invoke a few unintended consequences, but Alabama had Georgia nearby to observe suffering from the consequences of their own legislation to learn from. Elizabeth Dwoskin has an in depth article in Businessweek discussing the issue of jobs usually performed by immigrants and unemployed Alabamians. She provides this perspective.

"For decades many of Alabama’s industries have benefited from a compliant foreign workforce and a state government that largely looked the other way on wages, working conditions, and immigration status. With so many foreign workers now effectively banished from the work pool and jobs sitting empty, businesses must contend with American workers who have higher expectations for themselves and their employers—even in a terrible economy where work is hard to find."

Alabama built industries on the assumption that they could get away with using immigrants to perform hard labor at low pay and without benefits. The governor and his allies seemed to have thought that Alabamians deserved the same right to work for sub-standard wages and no benefits.

Dwoskin describes the workday of a group of Hispanics picking tomatoes on a farm in Alabama.

"On a sunny October afternoon, Juan Castro leans over the back of a pickup truck parked in the middle of a field at Ellen Jenkins’s farm in northern Alabama. He sorts tomatoes rapidly into buckets by color and ripeness. Behind him his crew—his father, his cousin, and some friends—move expertly through the rows of plants that stretch out for acres in all directions, barely looking up as they pull the last tomatoes of the season off the tangled vines and place them in baskets. Since heading into the fields at 7 a.m., they haven’t stopped for more than the few seconds it takes to swig some water. They’ll work until 6 p.m., earning $2 for each 25-pound basket they fill. The men figure they’ll take home around $60 apiece."

Let’s see: 11 hours work to earn $60—that makes $5.45 an hour. And one has the benefit of 11 hours of fresh air in the Alabama sun. Why wouldn’t unemployed workers come from all over the state for such an opportunity? Some of them actually do come, but few last more than a day. Does this imply that Alabamians are lazy, or that they are not willing to work hard, or that they can’t take the heat. In answer, Dwoskin provides this perspective.

"Of course, there’s an equally compelling obverse. Why should farmers and plant owners expect people to take a back-breaking seasonal job with low pay and no benefits just because they happen to be offering it? If no one wants an available job—especially in extreme times—maybe the fault doesn’t rest entirely with the people turning it down. Maybe the market is inefficient."

"Tom Surtees is tired of hearing employers grouse about their lazy countrymen. ‘Don’t tell me an Alabamian can’t work out in the field picking produce because it’s hot and labor intensive,’ he says. ‘Go into a steel mill. Go into a foundry. Go into numerous other occupations and tell them Alabamians don’t like this work because it’s hot and it requires manual labor.’ The difference being, jobs in Alabama’s foundries and steel mills pay better wages—with benefits. ‘If you’re trying to justify paying someone below whatever an appropriate wage level is so you can bring your product, I don’t think that’s a valid argument,’ Surtees says."

So Alabama legislators have embarrassed themselves and their state, have inflicted wounds on numerous businesses and industries, and have denigrated the integrity of the state’s voters—that makes for a few notable unintended consequences.

But surely the legislators in Alabama and similar states had their hearts in the right place and were trying to do what was best for their states. Charles Kenny picks up the question of exactly what are the impacts on the economy from illegal immigrants. His article appeared in Businessweek. He provides us with some interesting and relevant studies.

"In a 2010 paper, Ottaviano, Peri, and Greg Wright looked across U.S. industries and found that the net effect of immigration has been to create more jobs for native workers—including low-skilled workers. That’s in part because many immigrants take jobs that would otherwise be sent abroad."

"In a separate study, Peri analyzed cross-state evidence and found no proof that immigrants crowd out native, unskilled employment—and considerable evidence that they increase productivity. Each 1 percent increase in employment due to immigrants is associated with a half-percent rise in state income per worker between 1960 and 2006. Immigrants provide services efficiently and are themselves a source of demand for local goods and services. Unskilled immigrants take on manual tasks such as construction, while unskilled natives move into communications tasks such as call centers. This is an efficient division of labor that increases overall productivity."

So immigrants are not a burden on the economy, but rather they provide a net benefit! Those Alabama lawmakers may have had their hearts in the right place, but their heads must have been somewhere else—perhaps somewhere where that Alabama sunshine wouldn’t be a problem.

Kenny discusses at length why anti-immigrant laws make little economic or moral sense. He makes a compelling case. Perhaps the title he chose for his piece is an appropriate comment to make in ending this discussion.

"How to Be a Patriot: Hire an illegal immigrant."

1 comment:

  1. rhis is the first really good article i\ve read in days. It reminds me of a time long ago when writers inspired you to think and learn..Thanks so much..Your my New Favorite in a sea of mediocrity as I once heard most article of Today descibed.


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