Friday, May 12, 2006

New American Brethren

     There are two primary reasons that people migrate between countries. Every immigrant has both motivations, although the degree to which each one influences varies. Reason #1) The person wants to leave their origin country. Reason #2) The person wants to enter their destination country.
     Sounds simple, and maybe a little insultingly so. However, if you want to have a comprehensive discussion on immigration in this country (beyond, "We have laws and everyone needs to obey those laws" or "why don't they just learn English?"), we need to explore how these two motivations work in real life.
     In 2006, we don't seem to have much of a problem with Poles or Russians or Germans clamoring to get in. The main issue in 2006 is Mexicans (and if you live in South Florida, Cubans). Why do they want to leave their homes? Well, the easy answer is that their home sucks. Jobs may not be available, goods may not be available, cops might be corrupt. But why not stay in Mexico and go work in Cancún? Or Cabo San Lucas? Or hop in a boat and go to Cuba? Instead, they come into the USA and make their way to Tucson or Los Angeles or Atlanta. Why?
     The simple answer is that it's attractive here. There are jobs and the streets are (relatively) safe. You may not be able to survive on minimum wage, but if you're willing to live in a 2 bedroom house with 15 of your close friends and relatives, you can do it. In fact, that sort of lifestyle might be considered luxurious. In fact, just being able to turn on the kitchen sink and drink the water without getting tapeworm is something short of miraculous. So it's easy to understand why they would want to be come here, too. But why have we made it so attractive for them?
     I mean, sure, we demand clean water, too. But what we also demand is dollar menus at McDonalds. And we demand that our bed is made at the Motel 6. And, oh yeah, we demand that the Motel 6 charge no more than $39.99 a night. And while those are not excuses for taking advantage of underpriced human labor, and while those don't force businesses to hire new immigrants and illegal immigrants, there's certainly pressure put on these companies to hire people that won't charge much and won't make a fuss about working conditions.
     The Truth is, if you ran a grocery store and you needed someone to sweep up the storeroom, who would you prefer to hire? If you only spoke English, would you rather hire someone who only spoke Spanish if they were willing to work for the same price? Even if they were willing to work for a dollar less? If we had more English-speaking US citizens willing to do these jobs, there would be no demand for Mexicans. And if there were no job available, the torrent of people crossing the border might turn into a trickle.
     Enforcement won't work. We can see that with our nebulous "War on Drugs". Interrupting the transportation of drugs does nothing to stem the demand pressures. Eventually the law-enforcement dam springs a leak and drugs come through. The only way to solve the influx of drugs and of poor immigrants is to lower demand. And don't think that cracking down on employers will do the trick. The demand is there because of a lack of potential employees. Fining companies won't correct that.
     Here's my modest proposal: Every family should have at least three children. (Currently, the US average is 2.09) The oldest will inherit the family estate. The second will seek out work in the world and start out with a blank slate. And the third will be destined to remain poor, working for minimum wage or less in menial, but necessary, jobs.
     Of course, if you think you have a better way to drum up a workforce, please post your ideas. Mexicans aren't coming here against our wishes. They're coming here in response to an invitation. It's not sent through Evite, and it doesn't have calligraphy on the front. But the large number of jobs open to them is as good as one of those.
     It occurs to me that one long-term solution is to raise the standard of living in Mexico enough that its people won't go risking their lives in the desert to get a job polishing the insides of a toilet. But that still won't answer the question of who will do those things. Maybe the answer is to dump all of the restrictive immigration policies and open our doors wide open. If they can find a job, great! If they can't - time to move on. In that sense, an amnesty program might be on the right track, except it would be a one-time event.
     Or maybe the answer is to get rid of low-paying jobs entirely. At the grocery store and at Home Depot, you can check yourself out - no more cashier or bagger! If we automated jobs - think of a robotic janitor - there would be no need to look for a low-wage employee. And if we dump industries like farming altogether, nobody will look here for jobs picking oranges or harvesting sugar. They'll go to China or even Mexico. And we can turn that land into shopping malls and Infiniti dealerships and buy all our produce from overseas.
     I'm not being snarky. I'm looking for solutions to the root causes of illegal immigration. You won't fix it by putting the new Sons of the Confederacy at the Mexican border. And you won't fix it by putting the screws the each family that hires a Mexican nanny. If you really want to prevent unskilled workers from crossing the border, make it so US companies don't need unskilled workers in the first place. Or just let it be, and look for ways to help your new American brethren become citizens.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The GOP Immigration Disaster of '06

     For the past 25 years, the Republican party has been spectacular at rewriting the national agenda so that it could maintain its unnatural coalition between the fiscal conservatives and the bible-thumpers. (Except for a slight blip in 1992) At first it was easy. Ronald Reagan had Communists to rail against. And if there were ever an issue to unite the bankers and the good old boys together, it was those godless Commies who hated capitalism. But as the years went by, it was harder to keep reality out of the party line. It fractured in 1992 with the giant sucking sound of NAFTA and didn't recover until Bill Clinton got a BJ in the Oval Office.
     Now the Republican leadership [sic] is struggling mightily to keep the nation focused on terrorism and gay marriage. Unfortunately for them, issues like global warming and corruption and the war in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina and, oh yes, Immigration keep popping up to the fore.
     Nobody seems to know what to make of the immigration issue yet, because it's a complex issue that doesn't like to be painted in black and white. Dems aren't sure how to handle it and are privately thankful the issue is arising during a Republican presidency so they don't have to. Republicans, on the other hand, are going to pay a very large price because immigration will drive a wedge between the capitalists and the theocratists.
     Of course, observers are starting to realize that the issue isn't really immigration, but bigotry. The most vicious illegal immigration opponents fall into two camps - those who have recently emigrated legally and resent the people who did not have to jump through the INS hoops - and those who have absolutely no clue how the immigration procedures work. (This is not to say that everyone else is educated on the subject)
     Look, I have to admit I speak only one language - English. I specifically did not take Spanish in my South Florida high school as an ineffectual passive-aggressive protest against the Cubanization of Miami. I'm not a huge fan of the areas of town where homes hold 12-15 Mexican immigrants. On the other hand, I'm not hypocritical enough to forget that my great-grandparents lived 12-15 to an apartment in New York 100 years ago when they emigrated to this country. And I know they didn't speak English when they arrived, although they eventually learned it. Of course, they had their Yiddish newspapers and shop signs in their neighborhoods too. And since many of them traveled in steerage class, chances are they didn't apply for legal residency until they landed at Ellis Island. So I have some empathy for the Mexicans (and yes, the Cubans) coming to America looking for a better life.
     The Truth is, I'm ambivalent about illegal immigration. Its effects on wage rates, on prices, on schools, on social services, and on property values are complex. However, I'm not ambivalent about the motives of the anti-immigration movement these days. It's nothing but raw, naked racism. You can hear it in the voices of the people who call the radio stations. You can read it in the letters they write to the newspapers. You can sense it from the shock and outrage over a Spanish version of "The Star Spangled Banner", despite the fact that the anthem has previously been translated into German, Latin, Yiddish, French, and of course Spanish. The US State department actually offers multiple Spanish language versions of the national anthem. (President Bush's remark that "I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English. only proves that he has no mastery of the English language himself.)
     The immigration issue deserves a lot more attention than one posting can give it. But it is becoming clear that "Hispanic" is the new "Black" in this country. The Republican Congress is trying to hitch its horse to a new "Southern Strategy" in a desperate new attempt to get racists to elect fiscal conservatives. If the strife in Congress is an indicator, the Dems might have a few good years ahead. On the other hand, if they manage to smooth over their differences, it could be Springtime for Conservatives.