Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Work Americans Won't Do?

In his latest column at National Review, Rich Lowry easily eviscerates the pro-open borders claim that illegal immigrants are doing work no American would touch.

Take agriculture. Phillip Martin, an economist at the University of California, Davis, has demolished the argument that a crackdown on illegals would ruin it, or be a hardship to consumers. Most farming — livestock, grains, etc. — doesn't heavily rely on hired workers. Only about 20 percent of the farm sector does, chiefly those areas involving fresh fruit and vegetables.

The average "consumer unit" in the U.S. spends $7 a week on fresh fruit and vegetables, less than is spent on alcohol, according to Martin. On a $1 head of lettuce, the farm worker gets about 6 or 7 cents, roughly 1/15th of the retail price. Even a big run-up in the cost of labor can't hit the consumer very hard.

Martin recalls that the end of the bracero guest-worker program in the mid-1960s caused a one-year 40 percent wage increase for the United Farm Workers Union. A similar wage increase for legal farm workers today would work out to about a 10-dollar-a-year increase in the average family's bill for fruit and vegetables. Another thing happened with the end of the bracero program: The processed-tomato industry, which was heavily dependent on guest workers and was supposed to be devastated by their absence, learned how to mechanize and became more productive.

So the market will manage with fewer illegal aliens. In agriculture, Martin speculates that will mean technological innovation in some sectors (peaches), and perhaps a shifting to production abroad in others (strawberries). There is indeed a niche for low-skill labor in America. The question is simply whether it should be filled by illegal or temporary Mexicans workers, or instead by legal immigrants and Americans, who can command slightly higher wages. The guest-worker lobby prefers the former option.

If this debate is presented clearly, there is little doubt what most conservatives — and the public — would prefer. In his second term, President Bush has become a master of the reverse-wedge issue — hot-button issues that divide his political base and get it to feast on itself with charges of sexism, xenophobia and racism. The first was Harriet Miers; then there was the Dubai ports deal; and now comes his guest-worker proposal, making for a trifecta of political self-immolation.

Lowry’s logic is as simple as it should be self-evident. Americans will do any job on offer if the price is right. Illegal immigration floods the marketplace with workers willing to do any job for any price. This means that employers no longer have to compete for workers or offer higher wages to recruit or keep workers. The net effect of illegal immigration is to drive wages down. Since most illegal immigrants have only the more basic skills, their greatest wage diminishing effect is at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, where they drive native workers from low-paying jobs by driving the wages so low the native workers can no longer sustain viable lifestyles by keeping those jobs. Illegals, by contrast, are willing to live in conditions that would horrify even the most pro-market conservative. The effect on native lower class families is horrendous since it wipes out the ability of less-skilled native workers to achieve any measure of basic economic subsistence, driving them into poverty and welfare. The well-educated, well positioned elites have nothing to fear from illegal immigrants because illegals will never compete with them. Hence Mort Kondracke and Fred Barnes on FOX News can freely agitate for even more immigration – legal or not – without the slightest concern. Neither of these men will have to compete with an illegal immigrant for employment, or see their wages reduced by throngs of illegal immigrant pundits willing to sell political commentary to the networks for a fraction of what Barnes & Kondrake receive. But illegal immigrants, hired by contractors, do help lower the price of home renovation and landscaping services that people like Barnes & Kondrake probably use in their homes. Indeed, illegal immigration makes it possible for the upper class and middle classes to obtain servants, nannies, gardeners, movers and construction workers at unprecedented levels at an unbelievably low cost. The damage done to the culture and the country as a whole isn’t immediately obvious, but it is real and mounting.

The Bush administration has become so wedded to idea that it can boost long-term Republican electoral performance by appeasing Latino voters that it is unlikely that it can free itself from that stance any time soon. Elected Republicans, wishing another terms of office, on the other hand, feel the mounting pressure from voters unhappy to see their communities inundated by illegals and are becoming more and more vocal in their opposition to the open borders policy continued by the administration. As with the recent Dubai ports debacle, the administration may find itself facing another GOP congressional rebellion before November.