Sunday, September 17, 2006

Immigration, Part One

As part of his continuing effort to win back some of the support he's lost over the last year, President Bush presented a "new" plan for immigration reform some days ago. I won't bother to recap what he said; what Bush has to say on issues that require legislation is pretty much irrelevant these days, since the Democrats don't care and the Republicans are too worried about next November's elections to do anything controversial, or, for that matter, intelligent. But I do have some things to say about the Immigration Issue, and given that Bush is trying to pump up interest in it, I figure now is as good a time as any.

Before I get into my thoughts on the subject, let me explain why I care so deeply about the "immigration issue." Like almost every other American, I am descended from immigrants. In my case, on my mother's side, I'm a second-generation immigrant. My grandparents were born in Ireland. They came to America in the late 'teens of the last century and lived a life not very different from the life my housekeeper and her husband live today. My grandfather was a day laborer in the Brooklyn ship yards. My (step) grandmother washed floors at Hunter College in Manhattan. (My biological grandmother died when my mother was eight years old, so I've no idea what she did to earn a living, but I assume it was either piece work or domestic work of some kind.) Because they were lower-class Irish, they were the Hispanics of their day -- tolerated, but not embraced, by the larger society, and viewed with scorn by the WASP upper class. It may be hard for some of you to believe this now, but for most of their first hundred years in this country, the Irish were considered to be lazy, drunken troublemakers with outlandish religious superstitions, narrow-minded and provincial, a group that stole jobs from Real Americans. (Businesses looking for workers regularly posted "Irish Need Not Apply" signs.) Every ethnic stereotype you can apply to an immigrant group today could be applied to my grandmother and grandfather, and probably was. Even my father felt that anti-Irish prejudice, real or imagined. In the 1950s he once spoke, rather bitterly, about being one of the two "token Irishmen" working at his company. (If you find the idea of a "token Irishman" bizarre, consider the fact that in 1960 there was real controversy about John F. Kennedy being an "Irish Catholic" President.) Compared to what some immigrant groups have experienced, anti-Irish prejudice may have been pretty tame, but it did exist, and it certainly left an indelible impression on my family. My Irish immigrant heritage is the main reason I'm passionate on the subject of immigration.

But that was then and this is now.

As I see it, the current Immigration Issue can be broken into two categories: security and economics.

Taking the first, people in favor of stricter immigration controls declare that unsecured borders invite terrorist attacks. Terrorists, we are told, can follow the coyote path of illegals north from Mexico into the soft underbelly of California and Texas without detection. Those who tell us this are probably right, though this assumes that all other methods of entering the country through deception are completely closed. For people who accept this line of reasoning, illegal immigration is a threat to national security, and must be stopped.

Others see illegal immigration as an economic issue, driving down the wages of American workers, draining the budgets of local and state governments with skyrocketing health and welfare costs, and otherwise wreaking havoc with the economy. Illegal immigrants, we are told, steal jobs from Real Americans. (Where have I heard that before?) For people who follow this line of thinking, illegal immigration is an economic threat, and must be stopped.

Now, there's truth to be found in both points of view. It's undoubtedly true that border security is a legitimate issue. It's also true that immigrants take jobs for low pay and make unfunded demands on state and local government budgets. Unfettered illegal immigration is a problem.

But do illegal immigrants cause this problem, or are they, like the rest of us, its victims?

Most politicians on the right reduce this to a law and order issue. We have laws, we're told. Illegal immigrants, by definition, have broken the law. Hence, they're criminals, and they should be treated as criminals. Throw them in jail, then throw 'em out. End of story.

Their position is disingenuous, to say the least.

When a law, any law, is broken over and over and over -- is, in fact, ignored by the people at whom it's directed -- there's something seriously out of joint. There's a disconnect between the stated purpose of the law and the real purpose, between the appearance of legality and the reality. When the national speed limit was 55 MPH, how many people actually drove 55? When Prohibition was the law of the land, how many people stopped drinking? With oral sex illegal in a number of states till the Supreme Court declared sodomy laws unconstitutional in 2003, how many men in those states never had a blow job? How many women in those states never had head? (Okay, probably too many.)

Laws that are ignored for the most part, are intended to be ignored. They exist for political reasons, to pander to a self-righteous interest group, or to use as a club against minorities that can't (or won't) fight back. They're not enforced because enforcing them goes against the actual interests of either the controlling political class or society as a whole. When a law that's widely touted is also widely un-enforced, it's a clear sign that Things Are Not What They Seem.

When Things Are Not What They Seem, you have to ask yourself... who benefits?

Well, to a degree, illegal immigrants benefit, because they're able to enter the country and gain jobs for higher wages than they'd receive back home. Yet that benefit is pretty slight, because the life of an illegal immigrant, while better than what he or she experienced before, is hardly a life any other American would voluntarily embrace. And in any case, though they do receive a (marginal) benefit, as a social group they're powerless to enforce their will, so I seriously doubt that illegal immigrants themselves are the primary movers behind our un-enforced immigration laws.

I'll tell you who I think benefits from illegal immigration: three groups, and you decide which is the most powerful.

The first group is obvious: business benefits. As long as there's an unending (and unorganized) supply of low-pay unskilled labor, wages throughout the business world are under continuing deflationary pressure. That's one reason the average American's inflation-adjusted salary hasn't really risen in thirty years. (The other reason, of course, is the mass export of American jobs overseas, but that's a topic for another blog entry.) A business doesn't even have to employ illegal workers itself to benefit from this wage-deflation pressure, as long as other businesses (and individuals) do. A wider, shallower labor pool brings down wage costs for all employers. To rephrase an old economic canard, when the tide goes out, all boats are lowered.

So, business benefits, and as Calvin Coolidge has been misquoted as saying, "The business of America is business." (Old Cal may not have said it, but enough people believe he did to make the saying a generally accepted piece of "popular wisdom.")

The next group that benefits from illegal immigration is, of course, also obvious: politicians benefit. Illegal immigration is a two-fer for politicians. On the one hand, as an Issue, it gives them a bogeyman to blame for their supposed constituents' economic problems, and by passing tough "immigration reform" laws with lots of stiff penalties and strict guidelines, they can been seen as doing something to protect Real Americans -- without, naturally, doing any such thing at all. And on the other hand, by not really enforcing these tough laws, politicians also provide a valuable service to their actual constituents -- the business interests that provide the funds to get the politicians elected. It's rather brilliant, as political theater goes. By beating the illegal immigration drum, politicians get to fix the blame for their policies on the people their policies encourage to immigrate illegally. It's what we in America call a win-win situation.

So, politicians benefit, and politicians run the show... don't they?

Like I said, the first two groups that benefit from illegal immigration are obvious. But when something is obvious, it goes without saying, that Things Are Not What They Seem.

What's the third group that benefits from illegal immigration?

I could tell you now, but I think I'll save it for tomorrow's blog...

(As always, feel free to comment by clicking the link right below.)

No comments: