Late, great immigration debate


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

Of course, we need immigrant workers—and most Americansdon't need an economist to explain it to them. Does anyone readingthis 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, orstanding at a dirty, dangerous assembly line in a meatpackingplant? Do you know anyone raising their kids to do any of thosejobs, or anything like them? I doubt it, because very few Americansdo. In 1960, half of all American men dropped out of high school tolook for unskilled work. Today, fewer than 10 percent do—butwe 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 businesswithout new workers—and not only do most native-born workersalready have jobs, but with most of us having smaller families andbaby-boomers retiring en masse, the native-born workforcewill soon be shrinking—shrinking dramatically. So without arobust supply of new immigrants, our economy, too, would soon beshrinking. In fact, if there'd been no immigrants in the pastdecade, the U.S. economy would have grown by less than half as muchas it did. Think about it: half as many new houses built, half asmany businesses opened, half as many new jobs created, half as muchnew tax revenue collected—and much less economic vitality.

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

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 hereto stay on. Just imagine how many businesses would shrink orcollapse if they left. (Remember, we're at what economists call"full employment"—virtually no workers to spare.) But we alsoneed a continuing supply of new workers to keep the economygrowing.

As is, that growth generates about 500,000 new unskilled jobsevery year, but there are only 5,000 visas for foreigners who wantto do full-time, year-round, unskilled work. No wonder people arebreaking 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 abetter answer—a system that allows these needed workers toenter the country lawfully.

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

Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the ManhattanInstitute.


Bring in all the Bangladeshis, why don'tcha?

Oh, Tamar—there you go again.

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

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

Sounds plausible enough, but the problem is that a highway isengineered for a particular speed. In other words, traveling55 mph, let alone 25, is unrealistic on an Interstate because itwas made for 70 mph travel—the angle of the curves, the widthof the lanes and the shoulders, the on- and off-ramps, the signage,etc.

An economy, on the other hand, has no such design criteria. Aflexible, dynamic economy like ours can accommodate itself tovarious levels of immigration, high or low. It's true that a higherlevel of immigration would result in higher overall economicgrowth. It's also true that the goal of government policy is notsimply to make the economy bigger, but to improve the lives, andincomes, of Americans already here. If we simply wanted a biggereconomy, we could just import the whole population ofBangladesh—more people would mean a statistically largereconomy, after all.

Today's large-scale importation of a rural peasantry into ourmodern society creates a very small net economic benefit—but,as the congressionally chartered National Research Council hasconcluded, the benefit comes from reducing the wages of America'spoor 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 givingfarmworkers a 40 percent raise—which would, trust me, draw innew legal workers, as well as provide an incentive for farmers toincrease mechanization—would cost the average Americanhousehold an extra $8 a year. You wouldn't even notice thedifference, though poor American workers sure would.

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

So, today's immigration system is beggaring the poor andburdening taxpayers to benefit certain corporations and those whoemploy servants. How can this be morally defensible, let alone goodpolicy?

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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