Checking up on enforcement-first

Today, Krikorian and Jiménez weigh the positives and negatives of tougher enforcement. Previously, they assessed the presidential candidates' immigration credentials and determined whether restrictionists have reason to be satisfied with their efforts. Later in the week, they'll discuss Real ID and more.

The good news: Adam Smith was right!

Tomás: The fact that the White House has permitted the Department of Homeland Security to actually start doing its job over the last year or so is good news in itself, but it is also having other positive consequences. By starting to make it harder to employ illegal aliens, immigration enforcement is improving the prospects of all those who compete with illegals for work. This includes anyone marginal to the labor market: high school dropouts, of course, but also black and Latino men, teenagers in general, the elderly looking for part-time work, single moms who need flexible work hours, ex-convicts, recovering addicts and the physically and mentally disabled. Anyone whom employers might hesitate to hire — for whatever reasons, good or bad — starts to look better when the labor market is tighter. After all, the laws of supply and demand have not yet been repealed. We've seen evidence of this all over the country for some time now. Last month, the president of a steel company in Arizona, where the state government is cracking down on the employment of illegals, described how the new enforcement is forcing him to reach out to Americans and legal immigrants: "We've raised wages, competing for a diminishing supply (of workers). We've been on a campaign of quality improvement, training, scouring the waterfront, so to speak, for American vets, ex-offenders trying to find their way back into society." Isn't this good news?

When Crider Inc., a Stillmore, Ga., chicken plant lost its mostly illegal workforce after a series of raids, management started trying to attract workers it had previously avoided:

But for local African Americans, the dramatic appearance of federal agents presented an unexpected opportunity. Crider suddenly raised pay at the plant. An advertisement in the weekly Forest-Blade newspaper blared "Increased Wages" at Crider, starting at $7 to $9 an hour — more than a dollar above what the company had paid many immigrant workers. The company began offering free transportation from nearby towns and free rooms in a company-owned dormitory near the plant. For the first time in years, local officials say, Crider aggressively sought workers from the area's state-funded employment office — a key avenue for low-skilled workers to find jobs. Of 400 candidates sent to Crider — most of them black — the plant hired about 200.

As the article noted, "For the first time since significant numbers of Latinos began arriving in Stillmore in the late 1990s, the plant's processing lines were made up predominantly of African Americans." Again, is this not good news? Employers, and the ethnic activists doing their bidding, will tell us that this is actually bad news, that these American workers aren't as productive, hardworking or docile as the illegal immigrants they replaced. In some case, this may actually be true — there's no use denying the real human capital deficiencies of some of our workforce.

But whatever obligation we may have to foreigners as children of the same God, we have a greater obligation to our fellow countrymen — an obligation at least not to sabotage the efforts of our poorest compatriots at building a better life for themselves.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and author of the forthcoming book, "The New Case Against Immigration, Both Legal and Illegal."

Bad news: rotting crops, dead migrants

Dear Mark,

The news is not all good. In fact, some of the good news you cite makes for a nice story, but it does not do very well under the scrutiny of more systematic analysis.

Let's start with your claim that cracking down on employers has made it harder to hire undocumented workers, thereby "improving the prospects of all those who compete with illegals for work." There is no evidence that there was competition to begin with. If there were competition, we would expect it to show up in declining wages for the most human-capital-deficient U.S.-born workers: high school dropouts.

Yet, there is little evidence that immigrants are harming them. In a 2005 paper published in the Economic Journal, David Card from UC Berkeley finds that there is no relationship between the presence of low-skilled immigrants and the wages of low-skilled U.S.-born workers. Card concludes, "New evidence from the 2000 census reconfirms the main lesson of earlier studies: Although immigration has a strong effect on relative supplies of different skill groups, local labor market outcomes of low-skilled natives are not much affected by these relative supply shocks." Translation: There is no evidence of competition between low-skilled immigrants and those who you assume compete with them.

Even when economists do find an effect, it is incredibly modest. George Borjas (who advocates reducing levels of low-skilled immigration) and Lawrence Katz, both Harvard economists, find that the presence of undocumented Mexican immigrants may drive down wages of high-school dropouts by a mere 3.6% when accounting for the increases in capital investment allowed for by lower labor costs. This, Mark, is the worst-case scenario that economists have found — hardly the stiff competition that you'd like to think exists.

Besides, labor markets have been tight for a long time. The average unemployment rate between 1993 and 2006 was a very low 5.2%. These are precisely the years during which we have seen a dramatic increase in undocumented immigration. Indeed, the low unemployment rate helps explain why there's been so much undocumented immigration: the high demand for workers in a tight labor market.

Assuming that stepped-up enforcement has worked, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence — of the sort that you rely on — that the news is bad. There has been a slew of news reports about farmers in agriculturally-rich areas who have watched their crops rot on the vine because they cannot find enough workers for the harvest. Consider this from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Some growers are planting fewer acres than normal as they scramble to save the season. [The trade association Western Growers] is worried that the lack of workers — mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America — could cause $1 billion in losses to California agriculture this year.

In a tight labor market, it's hard to find a workforce to do the work that immigrants have been doing for the last 100 years.

The really tragic news is that stepped-up border fortification continues to drive migrants to take drastic measures to cross our borders to find work. On Monday, I mentioned that migrants are paying between $2,500 and $3,000 to hire smugglers to guide them through dangerous terrain to avoid detection. The degree of danger is no more evident in the number of deaths reported along the border in the last few years. Since 1997, nearly 4,500 deaths have been reported along the U.S.-Mexico border (not counting the second half of 2007). Most of the deaths are caused by environmental factors such as extreme heat and cold.

The lives of these "children of the same God," as you rightly call them, are being sacrificed at the altar of tougher enforcement. Given the economic realities of immigration and labor and the dubious effectiveness of the enforcement-only approach, it appears that the enforcement devotees are praying to a false god.

Tomás R. Jiménez is an assistant professor of sociology at UC San Diego and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

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