A relative has told me that the only way to secure our border is to allow the Border Patrol to shoot to kill. He honestly believes this is OK. He also honestly believes he is a Christian.
I’ve heard of prosperity gospel. Perhaps his church teaches hostility gospel. My church doesn’t.
Talk about immigration generally ceases to be talk and quickly descends into rhetoric. Porous borders! Welfare cheats! Low riders! Constantly pregnant Latinas! It’s easy to whip up hysteria and to present a convenient scapegoat: the Mexican drywaller who took away an “American” job, rather than the millionaire developer who hired him – and who even now is lobbying your congressman not to pass stricter immigration standards.
As recently as the 1970s, Mexican immigration was largely invisible to the majority of United States residents. Unless you lived in or near California, Texas or Illinois, you were not likely to be aware of the traditional scenario: men between the ages of 18 and 40 who came north, worked for a time and then went home. This cycle had been going on for decades, an open secret that ensured a steady supply of temporary workers (especially for agriculture).
The Immigration Reform & Control Act of 1986 required employers to confirm work eligibility. But IRCA didn’t work-a. The infamous “paper fix” was doomed from the start because so many employers were unwilling to give up cheap labor. They didn’t have to; since the law’s language included the phrase “knowingly hire,” they could claim they didn’t know workers’ documents were forged.
In addition, IRCA included a pathway to amnesty. This led to new citizens petitioning to bring in relatives. We started seeing entire Mexican-American neighborhoods, instead of catching quick glimpses of men who worked a few months and returned home.
Those neighborhoods burgeoned during the 1980s as Mexico’s economic turmoil caused many new workers to surge north. Plenty of work was available in that decade because increasing U.S. affluence had turned certain secondary-sector jobs into “immigrant” jobs, i.e., things that many Americans didn’t want to do: park cars, make beds, mow lawns, clean houses, etc.
Where labor demand exists, migration will occur – or so the classical labor theory goes. This is particularly true as regards to agriculture. We can’t seem to get enough affordable fruits and vegetables as well as poinsettias, lilies, fuchsias, chrysanthemums, and landscape and bedding plants. Growers will do anything to ensure a ready supply of such items. (Except, possibly, to pay a living wage.)
Why shouldn’t Mexicans head north? After all, we’re hiring.
A new underclass
During the 1990s, the growth of the “economically active population” (those of an age to look for work) in Mexico continued to outpace existing employment. Between 1990 and 1996, the EAP grew by 7.6 million while at the same time 260,000 jobs were eliminated in Mexico.
Then and today, immigrants who head north often keep moving – and not just to urban areas. To supply our insatiable national appetite for cheap fryers and wall-to-wall carpeting, factories are changing the face of rural America. For example, the Catskills region now features a year-round economy based on jobs such as poultry farming and foie gras production. Southern states are luring Mexicans to work in rug mills or chicken-processing plants.
These new “immigrant jobs” are as physically demanding as the traditional stoop-labor gigs held by farmworkers, and as poorly paid. But since the cost of living is lower in Texarkana than in Los Angeles, immigrants find it possible to survive.
But they survive as an underclass: A group of people allowed in for a specific amount of time to do hard labor for relatively little money. They are welcome to do our dirty work, but ineligible for benefits and protection of law.
Our dirty little secret
Workers slip across the border every day and find work thanks to what author Hyperborder author Fernando Romero calls “the politics of tolerance” by both governments. The U.S. and Mexico have been content to leave well enough alone because the situation is, on the whole, mutually beneficial:
- Mexicans get jobs and send home remittances.
- Captains of industry get a ready supply of cheap labor.
- U.S. citizens benefit from the invisible price supports that undocumented workers provide.
That last one is our dirty little national secret. We want the standard of living that goes along with those price supports. We want workers to mop our floors, mow our lawns, detail our cars, sew our clothes, slaughter our chickens and build our homes. We want inexpensive produce in the markets, a decent price on dry-cleaning and great dinner specials at Applebee’s.
But we don’t want to know how we get these things. We just want them. We feel entitled to them. And if you’re a low-income worker yourself, you might not be able to get by without them.
The fact is, we cannot get these things without a cheap, dependable workforce – and undocumented workers are the answer to an employer’s prayer. They’re clamoring for jobs. They’ll work for less (and often you can get away with stiffing them on their wages). They don’t complain about long hours, hazardous working conditions or a lack of health-care benefits.
Luxuries are now necessities
It’s easy to fasten on “illegals” as the only thing wrong with our country’s economy, and easier still to resent Mexicans because of skin color and cultural differences. Ever turn on a talk-radio show and hear someone ranting about the untold numbers of undocumented Irish immigrants in Boston?
Immigration fears aren’t borne out by the facts. For example, most immigrants do pay taxes, directly or indirectly. (In fact, they seem to be helping prop up Social Security.) They either take jobs Americans don’t seem to want (see above) or create entire new classes of employment like taco trucks or tiendas that cater to fellow immigrants.
But try telling that to a “militia” volunteer standing at the border, or to a middle-class American who feels her salary isn’t keeping pace with inflation. That middle-class salary looks pretty good to someone from Oaxaca. In fact, it is pretty good – so good that many middle-class Americans can afford to hire a yard guy or a maid.
Things once considered luxuries now seem like necessities, thanks to enterprising Mexican gardeners and cleaning women. Even a blue-collar worker can convince himself he deserves the best that money can buy – and with price supports from undocumented immigrants, his money goes a lot further.
Too much anger, too little information
I’m not saying that Americans don’t work hard. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ever indulge in a new blouse or that dinner special at Applebee’s.
What I am saying is that we can’t have it both ways. Americans can’t enjoy cheap goods and services and then pretend outrage that immigrants are slipping across the border. We can’t stock up on 59-cent-a-pound whole fryers and then claim that we are shocked, shocked! to find that Tyson hires illegal workers who don’t unionize.
Is this the kind of country we want to be? One whose lifestyle continues to rely on the backbreaking, poorly paid labor of others? (Don’t get me started on globalization, either.)
Leo R. Chavez, author of The Latino Threat, proposes that “if the economy needs more workers than we produce through births, then let those workers and their families live under the protection of law.”
I don’t know what law that will be. I don’t pretend to know the answers. Like so many others, I’m not even sure I understand the questions. However, I do know that too much anger is being generated by too little information. What the economists have to say takes time to hear and effort to comprehend.
We need to listen, and we need to stop thinking the situation can be resolved with a sound bite or a slogan. Immigration has re-shaped this country in the past, and will do so in the future – legally or not.