September 5, 2006

Immigration: No will, No Way.

In the never-ending conundrum of undocumented workers, the solution appears to be no solution. With the President backing away from his middle-of-the-road stance, the New York Times reports that the Republicans are about to give up on a legislative solution to the problem of illegal immigration. The immigration bill, recently a high priority of the administration, is about to slip quietly off the table.

This comes as no surprise. In our blogs over the past few months, we have looked for the legislative thread, the core beliefs around which a bill could be fashioned. But a bill requires a middle ground, and in this case, there simply isn't any. On one side, you have 12 million or so undocumented workers who are indeed working. Thousands more slip through our porous borders every month. So one brand of realist says, let's seal up the borders and deal with the millions already here. Legitimize people who have established themselves in the economy and send the rest home. This solution would dramatically raise the cost of living for everyone.

On the other side, you have another kind of realist. These folks are here illegally, so they are not due any consideration. Round them up - all 12 million - and toss them out. Let them reapply and re-enter legally. This solution would rip apart communities and tear the heart out of an essential part of our workforce.

Where is the middle ground? Like so many other public policies of late, this one is built on the San Andreas fault. The earth is shifting and the middle ground is turning into a void. You can't afford to legitimize millions of undocumented people - and if you did so, you send the wrong message to those who came to our shores legally. There is no practical way to seal up the borders. And there's surely no way you can toss them all out.

The Status Quo
Here's the Insider prediction: enforcement efforts are going to become much more visible. A few thousand undocumented workers will be locked up and, eventually, tossed out. But these efforts are not intended to confront the real problem. The arrests are just symbolic. The vast majority of illegals will continue to do what they always do: work hard at tough jobs and send as much money home as possible. States will continue to struggle with the status of these disenfranchised workers. We'll sort of pretend they aren't there. They will continue to work in largely substandard conditions, with few benefits. When they are seriously injured on the job, we'll make sure they collect their workers comp benefits.

It's hard to imagine congress coming up with a solution. There's a significant downside to every legal remedy. If your goal is to avoid rocking the economy, you leave these folks right where they are, working in marginal conditions for marginal wages. That way, we can have our lawns mowed, our groceries bagged, our apartments built, our houses and hospitals cleaned and our crops harvested, without significantly raising the cost of doing business. We all benefit from the status quo, so it's in our collective interest to keep it going. To be sure, it isn't really fair. It isn't exactly right. But, heck, we didn't ask these folks to come here and, despite some inflammatory rhetoric, we don't want them to leave.

| 1 Comment

1 Comment

There's an interesting (but not great) movie called A Day Without A Mexican (it first came out as a short film in 1998, then a full-length straight-to-DVD feature in 2004). The premise is that one day, all the Mexicans in California disappeared. There was no one to mow lawns, wash dishes, bus tables, shovel dirt, pick fruit, etc. But also missing were electricians, nurses, professors, police officers...

Most Americans are not willing to take certain jobs, thus creating an employment market for those who will, who are from places with living conditions we can't even begin to fathom. Closing that door will create a huge skilled and unskilled labor shortage, which will drive up the pay scale for those jobs (thus making them more desirable to Americans), but also inlfate the price of the results (i.e., goods, services) of such labor. Are we willing to pay that "price"?

While you're thinking about that, also think about this: Who among us would be here today if our grandparents had not been allowed to come to the US and be the unskilled labor of the early 20th century?

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This page contains a single entry by Jon Coppelman published on September 5, 2006 3:06 PM.

Remembering the "labor" in Labor Day was the previous entry in this blog.

Health Wonk Review #15 is the next entry in this blog.

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