July 19, 2004
Immigrant Song

LaShawn Barber linked up this important decision in a Virginia suit that claimed illegal aliens' constitutional rights were being violated because state colleges were refusing to enroll them:

A federal judge has dismissed charges by a group of illegal aliens who claimed that state-sponsored colleges in Virginia were violating the Constitution by refusing to enroll them.

As a conservative, it probably won't surprise you that I applaud this decision and think illegal aliens should be denied access to any tax-supported services. What may surprise you though is that I think the problem can only be solved by liberalizing our immigration laws to make it easier for people to achieve legal status.

Personally, I find it outrageous that people who are not paying taxes are getting access to things like free education, legal representation, and medical care. These are benefits of citizens, people who through birth or effort belong in a very real sense to the United States. They are extended to legal aliens because those legals are paying at least some taxes, and are therefore entitled to the same access. I also think it's a good idea, because it makes it more likely that people who work hard and are productive will become citizens of this country, making it a better place for us all.

But again, in no uncertain terms, I do not think illegal immigrants should have access to any of these services. In fact, I think these services should be actively denied to them.

However, as a dynamic progressive, I think it's current immigration and minimum-wage law that are in fact creating the problem of illegal immigration. I strongly believe we need to liberalize current laws and make it easier for people to legally immigrate to this country. For related reasons, I support initiatives to roll back minimum wage laws.

As any illegal (or employer thereof) will tell you, this would simply legitimize what's already a fact on the ground. If federal officials found every single illegal immigrant in this country and deported them tomorrow, the results would be disastrous. Entire chunks of our economy would simply evaporate, or slowly grind to a halt. We're talking a full-blown collapse here. Anyone who believes otherwise doesn't live in even a medium-sized city or major agricultural area.

Illegals are in such high demand because our minimum wage laws set an artificial lower boundary on labor costs, making it too expensive to hire citizens or legal immigrants for most, if not all, entry-level and/or low-skill jobs. Not just because they don't want to do the work, but because employing them at an illegal, albeit realistic, wage would be an unacceptable risk to the employer. An illegal's status also creates incentives for them to under value the cost of their labor, because the threat of deportation is so high, making them even cheaper to employ (and, by definition, exploit).

Common citizens oppose the liberalization of immigration law because they think "they'll take our jobs", not understanding that the jobs illegals "take" are nearly always those that nobody else wants. Organized labor opposes it because it represents the last bastion of their anti-market, protectionist power. Powerful business interests oppose it because it would in fact increase their costs, since now-legal immigrants could demand a market-set price for their labor, as well as humane working conditions that the threat of deportation keeps them from demanding.

Unfortunately, just reforming immigration law won't be enough. Even if we were to suddenly grant everyone who stepped into the country legal status, the results would still be a disaster. At the very best, prices would spike upward on pretty much everything as now-legal immigrants could demand unrealistically high wages for their unskilled, entry-level labor. At worst the immigration problem would continue unchanged, as legal status would rightly be seen as only useful for the very skilled (as it pretty much is today). Ending our immigration problem will require not only liberalization of immigration law, it will require the repeal (either dejure or defacto) of the minimum wage laws that make hiring any unskilled or entry-level labor unrealistically expensive.

Note I do not say "repeal immigration laws"... I still think the ability to deport those who cause trouble or try to find some sort of free ride is important. But by making it easier for immigrants who come to this country to work to achieve legal status, we'll gain far more than we'll lose:

  • The tax base will increase as now-legal aliens by the tens of thousands start paying income taxes.
  • Services such as free education will grow as new revenue allows for their expansion.
  • Exploitation will decrease because legal aliens will have open access to laws that protect everyone in the workplace.
  • Unemployment will plummet for all workers (both citizens and non-citizens) especially on the lower end of the scale, as the cost and risk of employing low-skilled and entry-level workers is allowed to settle at a market-driven price point.
  • Thousands of people will have the opportunity to learn the skills required for higher income jobs because it will now be cheap enough to teach them when they start out.
  • Crime rates, dependency, and poverty will all decrease markedly as more and more able-bodied people are gainfully employed.
  • "Offshoring" and other "outsourcing" pressures will ease because the US labor market's traditionally unmatched efficiency will suddenly be paired with much lower labor costs.
  • Thousands, if not millions, of new people will place their foot on the bottom rung of the only ladder proven to yield success in America: time, jobs, education, and a stake in the system.

The Bush administration's relatively enlightened policies on immigration are one of the reasons I support his re-election. Inflation is slowly repealing the now set-in-stone minimum wage laws, and I support a Republican congress in part because they have an "over my dead body" stamp to use every time a Democrat tries to push legislation through that attempts to raise it.

Providing tax-supported services to illegal immigrants who pay nothing into the system is not only unfair, it creates the counter-productive pressures of dependency and exploitation. Only by reforming and liberalizing immigration and wage laws will we break this vicious cycle. By doing so, we will not only be recognizing the facts on the ground, we will be setting the stage for millions of people to become productive members of our society. In a nation in which every single member is an immigrant of some sort (even if they were just hunting mammoth, they moved from somewhere else), how can we do otherwise?

Posted by scott at July 19, 2004 12:44 PM

eMail this entry!

The only worry that I have with legislation that supports your point is the probable immediate effect that it'd have on prices for those currently at minimum wage. Last I saw (and I will certainly admit that this was 2 years ago), a fry chef at McDonalds was starting at ~$8/hr. If we flood the market with now legalized immigrants and remove the minimum wage, it's possible that will see a huge churn in jobs such as these (the folks at McD's aren't stupid. If they can get the same or more for less money, they'll jump right on it). Couple that with the possible effect that the real estate world might see if current renters are now unemployed and the new crop of candidates are making 1/3 of what they were before, and you may destabilize the country's economy past a recoverable point.

Now, don't get me wrong, I certainly support the position you've got, I just want to make sure it's done properly...

Posted by: Ron on July 19, 2004 01:12 PM

I'm not completely certain it would affect any jobs that aren't minimum wage. There would also be the counter-pressure of employers suddenly offering more jobs and longer hours (and overtime!) to those who are currently restricted.

While repealing the minimum wage laws would be nice, it's not going to happen. The best we can hope for is to simply never raise it again, and let inflation do it for us. This will, in effect, *gradually* repeal the minimum wage law, which takes care of the "suddenly throws thousands of people out of work" problem.

Posted by: Scott on July 19, 2004 01:23 PM

Too bad the trackback doesn't work for you. I'm leaving blogspot and Haloscan soon, anyway. Thanks for the link!

Posted by: La Shawn on July 19, 2004 09:11 PM

Very well laid out discussion. Market forces should drive labor costs. I don't know if we can wait, though, for inflation to do a de facto repeal of minimum wages. We are already losing to much to other labor markets in the world and our trade deficit is a debt that will get called in, disastrously, if we don't wake up. Your well phrased arguments are an alarm that we should all heed (and our politicians, too).

But those pesky unions are going to shriek!

Posted by: Guetz on April 6, 2005 09:57 AM
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