IT'S no wonder immigration reform is one of the most serious issues facing policy makers today.
The rapidly growing pool of illegal immigrants not only has national security implications of the sort highlighted by 9/11, but also threatens the integrity of many industries, our social fabric in many regions, and even the safety of our food supply.
The illegal immigration problem is primarily the result of market forces. There is a demand for low-cost labor that is not being met by the indigenous, "legal" American labor pool. Businesses in relevant industries that are seeking a cost advantage over competitors are going to take advantage of an available low-cost factor of production.
Fences and police raids of businesses are unlikely to stop this from happening any more than the FBI was able to shut down all "speakeasies" and "moonshiners" during Prohibition. As with alcoholic beverages, a way must be found to regulate imported labor in a manner that minimizes the negative social impact of this activity.
Some liberal politicians and minority advocacy groups favor a blanket amnesty, as was done under Reagan in 1986.
This, however, will serve only to encourage more illegal immigration. Prospective illegals would obviously reason that it is worth the risk to cross the border; if they stick it out here, they will probably be able to take advantage of yet another amnesty program offered down the road.
Moreover, an amnesty will increase costs to taxpayers, since a brand new pool of newly "legal" residents will now be able to openly avail themselves of entitlements that were formerly only available to their U.S.-born children. This dynamic will have the effect of nearly tripling social welfare costs related to illegals, according to a 2004 government study.
On the other hand, a "get tough" approach that concentrates on fences (like the one just authorized by H.R. 6061), increased border patrols, and crackdowns on employers could wind up costing more in enforcement costs than any savings gleaned from netting a few more illegal workers. The market forces that created the problem will still be there, and the related parties will maintain their behaviors by increasingly devious and corrupt countervailing measures.
The best solution will involve a temporary amnesty that will allow existing illegals to register with the government as part of a guest worker program. A requisite "grace period" for compliance might then be followed up by stiffer enforcement for noncompliance thereafter. President Bush, along with the U.S. Senate, has proposed instituting a guest worker program, but these efforts have failed due to special interest pressures.
Labor unions oppose guest worker programs, fearing that a legally regulated influx of low-wage workers from Mexico and elsewhere will simply provide an above-board, institutional framework for holding down wages and undermining their collective bargaining power. Such attitudes are understandable, but the inherent logic of their position is one that leads back to the "get tough" approach. No solution is offered to the obvious drawbacks of such reasoning.
While some business associations have come out in favor of guest worker programs, their support for these may be half-hearted in many instances. According to a recent article in the Seattle Times, nearly one-third of low-skilled agricultural workers, more than one-fifth of hotel workers, and one-seventh of construction workers are illegal.
The cost savings realized by business owners in these industries is substantial, and threatens to lead to a larger illegal immigration problem in the future, as more and more businesses are forced by simple competition to bring their costs down to the level of firms that take advantage of undocumented labor.
Business leaders who sincerely promote real reform are trying to stop the spread of what amounts to an economic cancer throughout their industries, before it becomes even more intractable than it is today.
There is the potential that important sectors of our economy will become permanently dependant on cheap, undocumented labor, leading not only to downward pressure on wages for those who can afford it least - the working poor- but increased social problems related to such a large and growing under class of impoverished "non-persons" in our midst: crime, slums, drains on social services, etc.
Also, if employers openly flout standing employment regulations, business owners might treat other regulations with similar contempt. Consider food safety, for example. Do you want the lettuce you eat to be picked by an undocumented worker whose sanitary habits, or lack of them, are being ignored by their supervisors?
Meaningful immigration reform will involve some real sacrifices. There will be bureaucratic costs for set-up and enforcement, as well as costs to employers in order to properly document their workers and to pay all of them legal wages.
Consumers, for their part, will have to brace themselves for somewhat higher costs at grocery stores, hotels, and restaurants.
But the long-term penalties for not implementing real reforms - in terms of food safety, quality of life, and even national security - may ultimately be far greater if we fail to deal with this problem.
Rob Vincent holds a master's degree in international relations from the University of Chicago and lives in Perrysburg.
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