Immigration: Just The Facts, Please

Rich Lowry makes the right argument on illegal immigration: the empirical one. This is, ultimately, the only tack likely to withstand charges of racism and garner bipartisan support for serious immigration reform:

President George Bush, a strong supporter of the guest-worker program, has long said that “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande.” We are supposed to believe, however, that the work ethic does stop there — it is only south of it that people can be found who are willing to work in construction, landscaping and agricultural jobs. So, without importing those people into our labor market, these jobs would go unfilled, disrupting the economy (and creating an epidemic of unkempt lawns in Southern California).

This is sheer nonsense. According to a new survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, illegals make up 24 percent of workers in agriculture, 17 percent in cleaning, 14 percent in construction, and 12 percent in food production. So 86 percent of construction workers, for instance, are either legal immigrants or Americans, despite the fact that this is one of the alleged categories of untouchable jobs.

Oddly, the people who warn that without millions of cheap, unskilled Mexican laborers, this country would face economic disaster are pro-business libertarians. They believe in the power of the market to handle anything — except a slightly tighter labor market for unskilled workers. But the free market would inevitably adjust, with higher wages or technological innovation.

Ironically I have not been necessarily opposed to the guest worker program. I view it as a welcome attempt to grapple realistically with one of the great third rails of modern politics. Though I respect the objections of those who oppose it on principle, I see no evidence that they have the support needed to implement any of the alternatives they propose. In this atmosphere, it then becomes a choice between adopting an admittedly imperfect proposal and continuing to do nothing as we have for decades. As a pragmatist, the latter option is a hard sell.

Lowry’s argument, however, offers a ray of hope for embattled immigration reform proponents:

The average “consumer unit” in the U.S. spends $7 a week on fresh fruit and vegetables, less than is spent on alcohol, according to Martin. On a $1 head of lettuce, the farm worker gets about 6 or 7 cents, roughly 1/15th of the retail price. Even a big run-up in the cost of labor can’t hit the consumer very hard.

Martin recalls that the end of the bracero guest-worker program in the mid-1960s caused a one-year 40 percent wage increase for the United Farm Workers Union. A similar wage increase for legal farm workers today would work out to about a 10-dollar-a-year increase in the average family’s bill for fruit and vegetables. Another thing happened with the end of the bracero program: The processed-tomato industry, which was heavily dependent on guest workers and was supposed to be devastated by their absence, learned how to mechanize and became more productive.

So the market will manage with fewer illegal aliens. In agriculture, Martin speculates that will mean technological innovation in some sectors (peaches), and perhaps a shifting to production abroad in others (strawberries). There is indeed a niche for low-skill labor in America. The question is simply whether it should be filled by illegal or temporary Mexicans workers, or instead by legal immigrants and Americans, who can command slightly higher wages. The guest-worker lobby prefers the former option.

Unspoken, of course, in Lowry’s analysis is that mechanization means fewer jobs over the long term, but this would be somewhat ameliorated by higher wages for the workers still retained, and furthermore those workers would be American citizens. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat Congressman beholden to big labor, what’s not to like in this proposition?

As so often happens in American politics, success is often a matter of framing the question clearly. But when dealing with an apathetic and often reactionary public that won’t take the time to understand nuanced issues and a divisive and polemic Congress more concerned with maintaining power than ensuring the welfare of their constituents, clear-headed arguments like Lowry’s are likely to be lost in the partisan screeching.

What a shame.

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