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.

8 comments:

Ben said...

You always work from assumptions that aren't quite right. Sure, I don't know many Americans that want to pick lettuce for minimum wage or less. So if we shut off the flow of cheap Mexican labor, what happens? The lettuce growers aren't going to just let their produce rot in the ground. They will either innovate and figure out a way to do the job with fewer people, or they will raise the wage they pay until they have a large enough workforce to do the job.

It's not about jobs that Americans won't due. It's jobs Americans won't do at the prevailing wages. Cut off the cheap labor and employers will have to raise those wages, and Americans will gladly do those jobs.

I think it takes someone without a shred of respect for the American people to think that we won't do things like pick lettuce if we're paid decently. Most Americans I know (and that happens to be almost everyone I've ever met) will do whatever it takes to support their families, and that means taking whatever job is offered at a wage that allows them to do so. BUt you seem to think all Americans lare lazy bums. That ain't true.

Otto Man said...

Cut off the cheap labor and employers will have to raise those wages, and Americans will gladly do those jobs.

Will they also gladly pay $5 for a head of lettuce? Because that's the next step -- raise wages, and you've got to raise prices. Across the board. Say goodbye to the everyday low prices at Wal-Mart, watch the Red Roof Inn's nightly rate shoot up to $79, and on down the line.

I agree completely that if employers would offer a decent wage, Americans would do the jobs themselves. But I think the larger economic realities are such that they won't ever do it.

Ben said...

Economic reality is that if we actually follow our laws, employers will HAVE to raise wages to fill those jobs. Yes, prices will go up, but since wages will be up, it's a wash. In fact the only people it wouldn't be good for are those who already make a good living.

scorcho said...

"Will they also gladly pay $5 for a head of lettuce? Because that's the next step -- raise wages, and you've got to raise prices. Across the board. Say goodbye to the everyday low prices at Wal-Mart, watch the Red Roof Inn's nightly rate shoot up to $79, and on down the line."

I'm sorry that you think it's appropriate to take advantage of poor Mexican immigrants because you believe it's the only way to keep consumer costs down. I have a better idea. Why not stop pretending that's the only solution to inexpensive lettuce and realize that this issue, like most things in a capitalist society, resolve through basic principles like supply and demand. No one's going to pay that much for lettuce, regardless of who's picking it. Maybe it's time the corporate bastards take a loss.

Scott said...

Ben, I fail to see how paying a lettuce-picker more money will somehow make me feel that my salads aren't getting too expensive.
The more likely scenario is that we end up importing more of our food and producing less of it here.
Otto, I have to disagree when you suggest that the only impediment to citizens doing the work is the wage rate. There are "only" 280 million US citizens, and the Truth is that there are many more jobs than citizens. But an out-of-work Georgia Tech grad isn't going to go into the fields to pick lettuce at any price. Well, unless picking lettuce starts making $40k a year. He'd be better off spending his time looking for a job in his field. Sometimes there just aren't enough willing people to do the job, and raising the wage rate only means that some other job somewhere else goes unfilled. (That's not true in every case, but you might be interested in reading about the different types of unemployment.
Scorcho, I completely agree that it is never appropriate to take advantage of immigrants. However, in an industry with competition as fierce as the agriculture industry, I have a hard time blaming corporate fatcats. There's a real demand for low-wage low-skill jobs. And it's going to continue to put pressure on our borders.
So I have a question - why does it take a skilled MBA or engineer from Great Britain 4 years to get a green card when we're willing to tolerate unskilled labor in by turning a blind eye? What do we have to lose by opening our borders (with appropriate background checks and security safeguards)?

Otto Man said...

I'm sorry that you think it's appropriate to take advantage of poor Mexican immigrants because you believe it's the only way to keep consumer costs down

And I'm sorry you felt the need to put words in my mouth.

I think it's a crime that we take advantage of illegal immigrants in this country and then turn around and scapegoat them. I was merely pointing out that the crackdown on employers won't be as politically easy as some people think it will be.

Hey, there's another strawman over there! Why don't you go attack that one too!

Otto Man said...

Otto, I have to disagree when you suggest that the only impediment to citizens doing the work is the wage rate.

Half my relatives are farmers. If they could make money on those crops, they'd do 'em.

Char said...

Well put, Scott! I live in Southern Colorado, and we get thousands of illegals passing through (or staying) every year. Some of these people die; they freeze to death enroute--they get in auto accidents, etc.

Anyway, the thing that really pisses me off is that this should have been taken care of eons ago, but Mexico and the U.S. are both corrupt and have turned a blind eye to the growing illegal immigration problem.

I'm tired of hearing about it. The current rhetoric by our fearless leader and cronies about illegals is just empty, meaningless jargon. They want to take our focus away from really awful things like Iraq and the looming economic recession. Nothing will be done--it never is.