Late, great immigration debate

Wanna work hunched over in a field? Knock yourself out!

Of course, we need immigrant workers—and most Americans don't need an economist to explain it to them. Does anyone reading this want to spend the next several decades—because remember, this isn't just summer work, these are full-time, year-round, lifetime jobs—hunched over in the fields, or busing tables, or standing at a dirty, dangerous assembly line in a meatpacking plant? Do you know anyone raising their kids to do any of those jobs, or anything like them? I doubt it, because very few Americans do. In 1960, half of all American men dropped out of high school to look for unskilled work. Today, fewer than 10 percent do—but we still need those kinds of jobs filled.

And immigrants don't just keep the economy going, they grow it, making us all richer and more productive. You can't grow a business without new workers—and not only do most native-born workers already have jobs, but with most of us having smaller families and baby-boomers retiring en masse, the native-born workforce will soon be shrinking—shrinking dramatically. So without a robust supply of new immigrants, our economy, too, would soon be shrinking. In fact, if there'd been no immigrants in the past decade, the U.S. economy would have grown by less than half as much as it did. Think about it: half as many new houses built, half as many businesses opened, half as many new jobs created, half as much new tax revenue collected—and much less economic vitality.

And that economic growth isn't just good for employers—it's good for all Americans, whatever they do. Imagine a young couple that wants to open a restaurant. How could they if they couldn't find folks to bus the tables and wash the dishes and do the scullery work in the kitchen? But if they can find those low-skilled employees—and most likely they will be immigrants—then they can also hire waiters and managers and hostesses and a chef, and chances are, many of those jobs will be filled by native-born Americans. Not only that, but once the couple opens the restaurant, that will mean more work for local farmers, local produce truckers, the construction company they hire to build the restaurant, the people who furnish and decorate it, a bank, an insurance company, an ad agency, and lots of other businesses up- and downstream from all of these—most of which employ more relatively skilled Americans than immigrants. The moral of the story: immigrants aren't stealing American jobs. On the contrary, they're creating them—they're growing the pie for all of us.

But what's crazy is that under the current immigration system, there's no legal way for these needed workers to enter the country. Not only do we need the eight million illegal workers already here to stay on. Just imagine how many businesses would shrink or collapse if they left. (Remember, we're at what economists call "full employment"—virtually no workers to spare.) But we also need a continuing supply of new workers to keep the economy growing.

As is, that growth generates about 500,000 new unskilled jobs every year, but there are only 5,000 visas for foreigners who want to do full-time, year-round, unskilled work. No wonder people are breaking the law—there's no other way to square that circle. It's not okay that they do—no one thinks it is. But we need a better answer—a system that allows these needed workers to enter the country lawfully.

We shouldn't have to choose between immigration and legality. We need to fix our broken immigration system so that we can have prosperity and the rule of law too. And frankly, I don't understand you, Mark. Why on earth are you opposed to that? Wouldn't you rather see a system that is lawful and controlled. As is, you're just an apologist for our hypocritical, nudge-nudge-wink-wink failure—unrealistic law that we can't possibly make stick and that benefits no one but the smugglers and a few unscrupulous, bottom-feeder employers.

Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Bring in all the Bangladeshis, why don'tcha?

Oh, Tamar—there you go again.

You say that the economy "generates about 500,000 new unskilled jobs every year, but there are only 5,000 visas for foreigners who want to do full-time, year-round, unskilled work."

But your basic assumption is wrong—there is no economically "correct" level of immigration. Yesterday you used the analogy that today's immigration laws are like a 25 mile-an-hour speed limit on an interstate highway. They're both unrealistic, and both need to be brought into line with reality.

Sounds plausible enough, but the problem is that a highway is engineered for a particular speed. In other words, traveling 55 mph, let alone 25, is unrealistic on an Interstate because it was made for 70 mph travel—the angle of the curves, the width of the lanes and the shoulders, the on- and off-ramps, the signage, etc.

An economy, on the other hand, has no such design criteria. A flexible, dynamic economy like ours can accommodate itself to various levels of immigration, high or low. It's true that a higher level of immigration would result in higher overall economic growth. It's also true that the goal of government policy is not simply to make the economy bigger, but to improve the lives, and incomes, of Americans already here. If we simply wanted a bigger economy, we could just import the whole population of Bangladesh—more people would mean a statistically larger economy, after all.

Today's large-scale importation of a rural peasantry into our modern society creates a very small net economic benefit—but, as the congressionally chartered National Research Council has concluded, the benefit comes from reducing the wages of America's poor and distributing it to the rest of society.

To see how minute the benefit to better-educated Americans is, look at the Labor Department's calculations, which show that giving farmworkers a 40 percent raise—which would, trust me, draw in new legal workers, as well as provide an incentive for farmers to increase mechanization—would cost the average American household an extra $8 a year. You wouldn't even notice the difference, though poor American workers sure would.

And even the tiny economic benefit created by immigration is swamped by the extra social service costs. The problem here is not one of laziness or scheming by immigrants—they're not coming here to rip us off. But they are essentially 19th century workers in a 21st century economy and cannot help but be poor and uninsured and thus place large burdens on government spending.

So, today's immigration system is beggaring the poor and burdening taxpayers to benefit certain corporations and those who employ servants. How can this be morally defensible, let alone good policy?

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration.

Other immigration exchanges in this week's Dust-Up
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