March 1, 2007

On Immigration

Posted in Immigration at 11:21 pm by saracallow

The Los Angeles Times today (3/1/07) had a front page article titled “Going behind bars for laborers.”  The article summarizes the results of passage by the Colorado Legislature of what has been promoted as “the nations toughest laws against illegal immigration.”  According to the Times, since the legislation was passed last summer, “Colorado has struggled with a labor shortage as migrants fled the state.”  The result has been the spoilage of crops and the introduction of a new program to use “low-security risk” prisoners. 

Illegal immigration is a tough issue.  Philosophically, it pains me that the U.S. is separate from Mexico (and any other nation for that matter) at all.  Why should the location of your birth play the determining role in your standard of living?  How can we morally turn away immigrants from this country who desire to share in our standard of living?  How can we say that because we were born in the United States, we deserve the economic and individual rights privileges – but you who desire to come in, do not.   Especially considering we are a nation built on immigration.

Yet an open border is clearly not a pragmatic solution.  Our national systems could collapse under the weight of the influx and any advantages of living in the U.S. may be so diluted as to make little difference in the immigrant’s lives and serve to reduce quality of life here.

The other end of the spectrum, as exemplified by Colorado’s recent legislation is not much of a solution either.  The exodus of migrant labor left farmers without labor.  It is not as if there are actual legal workers waiting in the wings for the jobs to open.  Colorado has proposed a solution, but farmers are unenthusiastic about employing prisoners (wonder why?) and in addition to security issues, highlight the lack of training in the prison population regarding crop handling and the increased financial costs of working through the government.  There is an actual need for the illegal worker in our country – to deny this will hurt the business community.

So we come to some place in the middle….  the guest worker program, the path to legal immigration….  for once, I find myself on a not too distant page from our current Administration.  The guest worker program seems to recognize the need for this labor force.  However, Steven Greenhouse, of the International Herald Tribune, in his article on February 27, 2007,  “Despite push to expand guest worker program in the U.S., abuses abound” – demonstrates that the guest worker program is not perfect either.  Employers have taken advantage of the fact that workers cannot look for other positions, and the perception exists that you must go along or be sent home.  How to protect workers in such a program is clearly problematic.

Furthermore, what do you pay workers in a guest worker program?  When not dealing under the table with illegal labor, employers are subject to the laws of the country.  A minimum wage at least would apply, and there have been suggestions that the “prevailing wage” should be incorporated into legislation.  What no one seems to be discussing (but which I find curiously absent) is what this will mean for costs of production.  Illegal immigrants are probably rarely paid the “prevailing” wage… and sometimes not the minimum.  What will requiring this standard do to the costs of production?  Are their industries who will see the legalized standing of guest workers price them out of the market and then will move abroad and hire inexpensive labor?  Clearly, this would benefit no one – though it may simply be the reality of globalization.  Though unlikely to become an unsustainable industry thanks to all the supports provided by Congress, will farming cost taxpayers incrementally more – whether in hidden tax increases or small price jumps at the grocery store?

Is it moral to allow illegal immigration and the reduced wages for illegal immigrants which now comprise a decent portion of our system to continue?  Are those among us who support a living wage, path to citizenship, and the guest worker program failing to see the entire economic picture of a global community?  What are the answers? 

All I know is that Colorado’s solution seems disrespectful – both to the economic needs of farmers and to the immigrants who work their fields.  And I am morally uncomfortable with having second class “citizens” living among us, with no rights, lower pay and few benefits.  But economically speaking – I just can’t figure it out… and find my thoughts are running in circles. 

Maybe the solution is to accept the global nature of commerce, implement the guest worker program, stop protecting the farming industry, pay a living wage, allow business to seek labor where it is least expensive, watch some prices fall (and maybe others rise) – and deal with what may be the inevitable need of the United States to accept it’s changing economic situation in the world…  Though getting many to sign on to that unknown seems difficult, if not impossible.