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give me your poor

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

efin267lOver at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan collected comments from several smart people on immigration reform, particularly on whether liberals should support immigration reform. These are comments from other journalists rather than commenters on his own site, which I usually find much more interesting and original.

But these thoughts are still interesting and worth considering. Their basic point is that increased immigration leads to more competition for low-skill jobs, which can drive down wages. Also, that lower-class people are more likely to have to rely on public services like schools and hospitals, which are more likely to be burdened by an immigration influx. (For example, instead of having a poorly-funded public school, you’ll have a poorly-funded public school where a non-negligible percentage of students don’t speak English in the home.) Rod Dreher makes the point that you can be concerned about these things without being a racist. And he’s absolutely right there. These are the kind of questions that a society capable of mature discussion should be considering on issues like this.

I’m not enough of a policy wonk to offer an educated opinion on the questions they raise. I would question some of the assumptions. For instance, I would question whether low-wage workers are really significant worse off with an influx of legally recognized workers. Personally, I start with the assumption that some degree of immigration is unavoidable, at least with the way American businesses conduct their business. They seem to rely on it. The trouble is, if you have no legal status it’s easy for employers to pay you less than the minimum wage, which makes it that much harder for American citizens to find any kind of low-wage job at all. I mean, think about it: if you were building an office building and could hire unskilled citizen/visa-possessing laborers at minimum wage or could pay unskilled illegal laborers a lower wage (because how exactly are they going to fight you if they can’t involve the authorities?), which are you going to hire?

In my opinion, if you really want to help the low-wage worker, you need to do two things. First, bring back the unions. Or if unions don’t work, find some way to allow low-wage workers to organize and fight for fair wages and against corporate abuses. The greatest threat to unskilled labor isn’t from more unskilled labor, it’s from a corporate culture that’s dedicated to short-term profit rather than providing a worthwhile product or looking out for it’s employees’ welfare. And the more potential employees that don’t have the benefit of legal protections for workers, the more employees who can’t fight employee abuses because they don’t have legal status, the easier it is for employers to exploit all workers. Obviously there’s a cost to having more potential employees. I get that. But if there’s a benefit when more workers have legal status (easier to organize, less people able to work less-than-minimum-wage jobs, etc.), surely that’s worth some increase in job competition? The question is, just where is that tipping point? I honestly don’t know, but I don’t think it’s so simple as saying any increased in immigration among unskilled laborers is bad for the American lower class.

Second question: why are we so sure that reforming immigration laws would increase immigration levels? Really, at the end of the day maybe it does just that – but I’m not entirely convinced here. In recent years, we’ve had less illegal immigrants coming into America, but it’s not due to stronger borders or better policies: the American economy simply isn’t as attractive as it once was. I suspect border security and draconian immigration policies won’t really stop people from coming to the U.S. illegally – we’ll probably have as many people come as the current situation can withstand, which really depends on how good our economy is and how bad the economy they’re coming out of is. Again, I am not expert enough to assert this with certainty, but my suspicion is you’ll have about as many immigrants as there are jobs waiting for them. Making immigration legal might actually decrease immigration because ironically if you have to pay immigrants the same wage as citizens, there’s probably going to be less economic opportunity for them to take advantage of. (Less almost-minimum-wage jobs waiting for them.) If I’m wrong, I’d like to know. My point is, this is a question that needs to be argued, not just assumed.

Personally, I’m much more interested in issues of basic fairness. If anyone has ideas for how to stop immigration and get the illegal immigrants that are already here out of the country, I’m willing to give it a fair hearing. So far, the only approach that actually seems to work is to make America so unattractive for unskilled labor, they don’t actually want to come here anymore. And that’s… well, let’s just call it “suboptimal.” :-) The thing is, there are a lot of people who came to America illegally (or, increasingly, outstayed their visa), and many of them have become quite settled. They have children who have no memory of a life outside America, they get involved in their communities and don’t know anyone “back home.” And I believe that once they’re here, once they’re contributing to the community and once we in turn have come to rely on them, we have an obligation to treat them with human dignity. They should have protection of the law, so if they are the victim of a crime they can go to the police without risking deportation. They should have the same rights as Americans and should compete for jobs at the same level. To my mind, it’s unjust to force them to live in the shadows. And it’s also unjust to have American countries depend on their labor, and then ask them to risk their lives getting here.

None of that means we should ignore questions of how immigration reform would affect the poor. But that kind of question isn’t the only thing worth considering. If it is a real issue (and I ask because I honestly don’t have the information to know!), we should look at the best way to address those problems along with the other issues that are part of the immigration issue – lost tax revenues, no legal protection, the way deportation harms families, whether illegal entry is a fundamental insult to the law that can ever be overcome, the dangers of getting here, the way unregulated immigration allows actually dangerous immigrants to slip in, and I’m sure we can add to the list.

I will say this, though: I’m glad to see this issue discussed at a level deeper than “they came here illegally so just throw them over the nearest border.” This is good for a start, and long overdue.

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