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Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…


Cleaning out my RSS reader, I came across an old Slate article about undocumented immigrants in America:


There’s No Such Thing as an Illegal Immigrant, by Eric Posner


In spite of the title, Posner doesn’t deny that undocumented workers are illegal, but he does put it on the same level as minor traffic violations. If all you’re doing is living here without legal status, you stand a very small chance of being deported, but (just as you may get in trouble for a traffic violation if the police suspect you of something else and want to pull you over), if you commit a more serious crime or look like the kind of person who would (read: are Arab and/or Muslim) we’ll punish you and then deport you.


What really interested me was the next part. Possner says the way we handle illegal immigration – looking the other way, even encouraging it in some ways, so long as the people aren’t violent, work hard, and learn the language. This comes from several facts:


(1) Americans like cheap stuff. We want our comparatively cheap restaurants, our low prices on fruits, our Walmart and dollar-store goods. We also want unskilled labors (child care, elder-care, landscaping, manual labor, etc.). In all these situations we’d rather not pay the prices it would take to cover the kind of wages required by our labor laws, but


(2) At the same time we think those labor laws are a good thing. We’re not going to write it into the law that they only apply to some people but not others. (Meaning: You’ll never get an immigration law passed that says people with a certain kind of visa are exempt from the minimum wage law.) Also,


(3) Working conditions in Latin America are so bad, even those low-paying, dangerous jobs Amrican labor law won’t let citizens do can look pretty enticing to people in nearby countries.


The short version: Americans have a need for low-paying jobs and non-Americans are happy to fill them, but American ideals about fair pay won’t let us explicitly open up those jobs to Americans. And as long as all three conditions hold, offering a pat to citizenship won’t solve our problem with illegal immigration. This isn’t because naturalization sends the message you can sneak into America and get away with it; it’s the economics of the situation. As long as there’s a need and people willing to meet it, you’ll have more people coming in to work illegal jobs.


This analysis seems about right to me, and I don’t see a lot of easy answers. One approach would be to fight back against (1). If you ever needed a reason to buy higher-quality, less disposable, more expensive products, this may be it. And only go out to eat when you can truly afford to give the serving staff a good tip, and where possible go to a local restaurant where you know the staff is paid a decent wage, even if it costs more. That kind of thing. (I’ve been making a real effort in this category since I moved to New York, though of course nobody’s perfect.) That said, while we may be able to cut down on the need, I don’t see us ever removing the need entirely. It’s just how the free market seems to work.


Another approach, favored by a lot of my libertarian friends, is to do away with (2). This whole problem comes about because we have both a need for jobs and regulations that keep people from actually working those jobs. But I think our workforce regulations are actually a Very Good Thing because they keep as many people as the economy will support working in the kind of jobs that actually can support the American dream – an independent family seeing after its own needs and saving for the future, etc. As much as I am troubled by the problem of the undocumented, I’d be more concerned about chucking basic protections for all Americans.


Maybe the best approach is to separate legal and moral rights of citizenship from the economic guarantees, so far as we’re able. If you are the victim of a crime in America, you should be able to use the courts without being afraid of deportation. I’d also like to see as many public goods as possible tied to income taxpayer status rather than citizenship (with a waiver for people who don’t earn enough to owe this kind of taxes). Put simply: we should make it easier for undocumented workers to pay taxes on whatever they earn, and if they pay those taxes they should get access to public goods like the social safety net and college in-state tuition.


On top of that, I’d tack on a crucial attitude change. A lot of people think of illegal immigrants like people who are somehow stealing from them: they don’t pay taxes, they don’t contribute but they still get all the good things about being part of society, etc. If anything, we are the ones mooching on them. A better way to describe it might be to say that our economy depends on “illegals,” and that they in turn depend on that economy. Symbiosis. No shame there.




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