A global view on illegal immigration
With a full-on labor march May 1, the immigration debate is getting more interesting, if still out of proportion compared to other more pressing issues in our country and the world. The coverage is finally starting to look past the most extreme arguments and give us information – instead of entertainment looking for ratings.Most of those strongly against illegal immigration aren’t racists, and those more sympathetic aren’t in favor of the destruction of U.S. civilization. Hard to see this before, when overwhelmed with images of angry students, waving a foreign flag and claiming this land back. The flip side image is the pseudo-military “I’m not racist, but …” middle-aged white man full of fear of a foreign culture.Simplistic coverage that plays to the choir demeans all arguments. Stick a label – i.e. fascist-racist or bleeding heart-socialist – onto any position and it’s automatically wrong. No need to actually argue your position through if you can preemptively label the others.Strange bedfellows on both sides of this issue too, which shows how conflicted it is. National security diehards are lining up with advocates for the U.S. poor and the U.S. environment. Big business finds itself with organizations for global labor and social justice.It’s not a security issue, at least not from terrorists. No border control will stop sophisticated suicidal maniacs. It may be a security of our culture – whatever that is – issue but that’s a subtle, more difficult argument to state clearly, let alone sell. Hence the substitutions of different meanings of security.The economics isn’t simple either. Do the illegals do the jobs we won’t do or just jobs we won’t do at the price and conditions businesses and consumers are willing to pay? Some figures on average pay are interesting here. Illegals make about $480 per week, legal immigrants about $700 and citizens about $900. Illegal immigrants make up 5 percent of the workforce but are disproportionately higher in low-skilled and unpleasant jobs, about 25 percent in agriculture and meat processing for example.It’s hard not to be impressed by the hard work and aspirations of most illegals I’ve met. Struggling to make a better life for their families, something all the working poor must understand. Perhaps that’s why few of the poorer U.S. citizens seem to mind them, though they have the most to lose.With illegal immigration, the U.S. ethos of hard work and freedom of opportunity runs head-first into nationalistic pride and respect for our country’s security and laws. Illegals demanding the same treatment etc. insult and devalue the privileges of U.S. citizenship. This must be especially galling to legal immigrants who’ve gone through an arduous and expensive process to respect our laws.In all this rhetoric, it’s easy to overlook that we’re talking about people. The drain on emergency health care is a valid point, though perhaps more a byproduct of our failing health care system in general. Here’s a small example why: Most Mexicans with kidney disease will die in Mexico of kidney failure. Make it to the U.S., visit an ER every week for emergency dialysis and you’ll live. Who wouldn’t do that if they could?Also, who would want the job of saying “so sorry but you’re going to die?” If we’re going to create “faceless bureaucrats” to protect our privileges then no one should complain when other bureaucrats protect the common good by refusing a zoning variance, enforcing OSHA etc.A guest worker program and eventual amnesty for those who decide to qualify and pay for the privilege of becoming a U.S. citizen sounds the most realistic. Actually it sounds like joining a country club, and without some method of controlling the current ease of playing oops, working here without a membership why would anyone bother to join? Some sort of enforcement of laws aimed at employers of illegal immigrants seems necessary before a guest worker program would work.On a global scale, migration is a safety valve for the world’s poor and they’ll eventually follow the money. Migration allows workers to get the fair market price for their labor and does more to alleviate global poverty than anything else. Current free trade is rigged in our favor, and the global market is mainly a mirage as the rich trade mostly among themselves as poor nations have little we can use. They do see all our lifestyle images though.Long-term solutions to immigration will come with population control and a fairer and freer trade system – probably. Instant free trade isn’t the answer for developing countries. None of the current developed countries simply opened up. We all had a planned policy that favored our development. We should help developing countries with this, which should include investing in education and regulatory institutions. Trade policies can complement or hinder this needed reform.Most of Mexico’s problems come from its corruption, weak governance and limited tax revenue. It can’t or won’t invest in the infrastructure, research and education it needs. NAFTA didn’t help Mexico’s poor either, as inequality and poverty grew. Subsidized U.S. agribusiness swamped their small farmers while non-tariff barriers limited Mexico’s imports to the U.S. I’d suggest the book “Fair Trade for All: How trade can promote development” by Joseph Stiglitz and Andrew Charlton, for interesting positions.The problem with unregulated trade as a cure all for the world in terms of poverty, democracy etc. is that I’m not sure the world has the resources (see energy prices) and ability to absorb all the trash (see global warming). Also, when we get dependant on others for our economy, do we, for example support their citizens pushing for democracy or the repressive status quo as that will be less disruptive to us? We may have to make choices not based on market forces, at least in the short term, if we want a sustainable economy and world in the long term.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column.