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Immigration is a Symptom, Not a Problem


In 1856 the Presidential election featured three parties, and the incumbent President ran on a platform of nativism. Indeed, slavery may have been the issue that people remember, but it was nativism which raised passions and caused a divide. In New York, the conflicts between English, Irish and German immigrants caused both social and physical conflict. "The Gangs of New York" is fiction, but it is based on real life struggles between competing interests groups.

In a fair world, there would be no illegal immigration, because there would not be economic disparities between countries sufficiently large to cause problems. While there are illegal immigrants from Canada in the United States, and illegal immigrants from the United States in Canada, and people do get into trouble for visa problems, there are scarcely enough stones thrown in that pond to matter. While there is some concern about illegal immigration from across the Pacific, largely what people mean when they talk about the "illegal immigration problem" is immigration of people from Latin America.

Estimates of how many illegal immigrants in the United States vary, with the lower end being approximately 7 million and the highest being 20 million. Which ever number one selects, this means that around 5% of the resident population in the United States is not here within confines of our system of documentation and recognition. As many as half again are illegal migrants. This means that there are probably 11 to 12 million people who are in one way or another, in the United States, and not part of system.

The law makes a distinction between laws that prohibit acts that are wrong in themselves, and acts that are wrong because there must be regulation and order. There is nothing intrinsically wicked about driving down the left hand side of the road – as long as everyone else is. There is nothing wrong with, and a great deal right with, wanting to go to a new country and make a new life, and participate in a vibrant and rich economy and society. We are not dealing then with a question where moral outrage is appropriate. The screaming and hand ringing from the hard right on the question comes from people who regularly violate laws such as speed limits and income taxes, and think nothing of it.

This is the first point we have to hold in mind about immigration: the numbers of people we let in, the ways we do so, and the means by which we give discretion, are all open to debate, just as the speed limit on a highway is. This means that articles on immigration which begin from the numbers, and then argue about reducing them miss the point: the question is not how to keep people out, but how many to let in, and how give incentives to others not to come and instead try and make a living in their own homeland. This means that the immigration debate is really a trade debate. Immigration is, after all, trade in labor. If immigration is broken, then it is our trading system which is broken, and people are voting with their feet.

In the 1990's NAFTA and a large bailout for Mexico, combined with continued neo-conservative policies at the top of Mexico's political system were the proposed remedy for the immigration problem from Mexico. Clearly they have not worked. Instead net undocumented migration has increased, with most estimates being that almost a million people attempt to settle or work as migrants, with only a quarter of that many removed. In fact the most effective way of getting an undocumented worker or resident to leave the country is to have them die. Only about 100,000 people are removed each year, while approximately 200,000 undocumented workers and residents die in the US each year

The economic impact of this population is astonishing. Consider that more money is sent home as remittances to other countries than the US spends on foreign aid to those countries. Consider that this population pays into Social Security, but cannot draw on that money. At the same time, the costs of this immigration fall heavily on localities. California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Georgia and North Carolina account for half of the undocumented population. Within these states a handful of metropolitan areas represent the bulk of the undocumented population.

This creates a classic political dilemma. Immigration, on net, benefits every one. Consider the iceberg lettuce in your cart. That was almost certainly picked by someone who was not documented. Likewise the cherries that you feast on, or the apples you give to your children. However, its burdens fall disproportionately on a smaller number of people, and those people know who they are. When the American economy was growing rapidly and wages were rising, more people saw undocumented workers as cheap labor, and were happy to leave behind those jobs. Now that construction is contracting, and the economy is generally stagnant for most workers, the positions of Americans on immigrants, in fact all immigrants, has reversed. It isn't that immigrants are depressing wages, it is that the collapse of housing construction is putting American citizens and legal residents in economic competition with illegal immigrants. Immigrants aren't taking up jobs, jobs are simply not appearing fast enough to absorb the growth in population.

Taking the hourly wage picture across the United States, there is no correlation between increases or decreases in wages, and concentration of illegal or undocumented workers. In fact, many of the fastest growing areas of the country, are also areas with high concentrations of illegal immigrants. This makes sense, people coming here to make more money working, are going to go to those areas where there are jobs to be had.

That wage pressure is not the concern in Washington DC can be seen from the current immigration bill. It will not remove anyone from the US who is not going to be removed anyway. By creating a "guest worker" program, it will create a flood of opportunities for people to disappear into the vast world of the American underground economy, increasing, not decreasing the number of people who can stay in the United States beyond their visa or other permission to be in the United States. In short, if wages were the concern, this would not be the bill to address them. Nor does the plight of localities in education and service providing cross Washington's mind very much either, there is no net new funding for localities affected by immigration.

As the election of 1856 should remind us, immigration is not a "problem" but a symptom of other problems. Our response to immigration as a symptom has to be based on having a plan to reduce the pressures that immigration creates in the present, so that we can deal with the root causes of immigration at large. In the United States, those problems are a trade regime which has failed to elevate living standards in Latin America, and economic policy here at home which has concentrated economic growth around a few industries.

With the present legislation, Washington has largely decided to "kick the can down the road" on all of this, and pretend that hiring a few out of work people along the border to drive back and forth will alter a Mexican economy which is corrupt and bleeding money, even in the middle of a huge oil boom. The best course would have been to provide aid to localities bearing the costs of immigration, and begin a process of integration into the US society. Instead, we are likely to see the reverse, an attempt to create a non citizen migrant laboring class. Europe has tried this, and without success –  indeed despite guest worker programs and attempts to export people back out of the core European nations, their immigration problem, social and economic, has continued to expand.

Ultimately the solution is a more prosperous planet. Countries that grow rapidly and have broad and deep expansion in opportunity, don't create immigration problems. However, that ultimately is going to be delayed, not improved, by another round of "kick butt and take names" showmanship. This showmanship has been tried with many anit-immigrant bills in the past, which seek to deny upward mobility to incoming immigrants. This is precisely the wrong thing to do, and is even illogical. How, if the problem of immigration is depressing wages and creating social service burdens of a low end competition, is keeping people in that low end a solution. The reality is that the very people pushing immigration as a problem are really saying that the problem is that the people coming into the US don't know their place.

The political reality is that approximately every decade during a wage squeeze, immigration becomes "a problem" and the solution is some form of amenesty, and a promise to "do something." We've reached that point in the cycle, and very little can be done about it in the short term. However, having reached this point, we should take the lesson, and begin a program of absorbing, and not submerging, the immigrant population in the US.

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