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Monday, May 01, 2006


Today is supposed to be "A Day Without Immigrants," when all of those who came to the United States illegally stay home from work in a show of solidarity. The idea being, of course, to prove that the country cannot operate without them. It's possible that I am a strange bird, but the immigration question seems to be the least coherent "debate" that's ever happened in this history of humanity.

Did I miss something along the way? Are immigration laws somehow unjust? Is there no public interest in making sure that we know who is here? I keep hearing things about how these people are 'hard working' and taking jobs that nobody in this country wants. I keep hearing about how it's in our self-interest to have them here. I keep hearing about how they just want a better life for their families.

So fuckin' what? I know it's a beleaguered and deceptively simple point: but what they're doing is still illegal. If I smuggle cigarettes into the country, then I should probably have them taken away. Unless, as noted above, these laws are unjust (something I have yet to see an argument for, let alone something I believe I could be convinced of), then the enforcement of the laws seems to be acceptable. The vast majority of Americans are in favor of limiting the membership in our little club, so whether or not someone from a different country wants in or not - we'd prefer you go through official channels.

People act as if there's somehow no harm to people coming and doing the jobs "nobody wants to do." Guess what the primary effect of liberalizing the labor market in this way is? Depressed wages. There is a direct and tangible harm to working-class America, and it has nothing to do with some sort of one-to-one swap of jobs. Post-NAFTA, wages did what everyone knew wages were going to do: dropped. And the fantastic part was, median real purchasing power fell both in Mexico AND the US.

One of the biggest historical tragedies in this country has been the exploitation of the lower classes. I realize we're supposed to believe in this American Dream(tm) of social mobility and the Little Guy clawing his way up to become a modern day Carnegie - and certainly, there are examples of this - but it's mostly a lie. The best predictor of where you will end up in socioeconomic terms is where you begin. More than intelligence, athleticism, religion or race - you're damn near predetermined to do about the same as your parents.

Since the inception of American-style democracy, we've been a country of elites. And because there is no explicit brightline, as with the Old Country Europeans, people are okay with this. People are optimistic by nature - eighty percent of people think they're above average, and about the same percentage believe that they're smarter than most of the rest. If you say the intelligentsia are going to run the country, 9/10 of New York City assumes they'll be getting their call any day now. Add to this the silly superstition that it's all about the hard worker pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and that classism is dead, and you get a circumstance that's ripe for exploitation. When you remove from public discourse the very question of market fairness, it gets suprisingly difficult to protest the treatment.

What does this have to do with immigration? Everything. Some of the most important legislation over the past hundred years has been the protection of workers' rights. Does it lead to less profit and a less fluid capital market in the US? Probably. But, sadly, that doesn't seem that important to me. By keeping illegal immigrnats here, you undermine the advances made by workers movements up to this point. If unions and American workers have to compete (yes, even for those 'jobs nobody wants' - dude, nobody wants most jobs. That's why you have to pay people) with a group who doesn't need health insurance, doesn't meet minnimum wage standards, and who will never claim worker's compensation - you'll see a downshift in the level of treatment these people recieve.

The ancillary effect is an upswing in racism. Just watch the next week as nascent racial tensions come out, even among the 'educated.' And just guess whether or not the US public will become more likely to support reforms in Central America among blatently corrupt crony governments. When you say "They're coming here for a better life," the implication is that they're coming from a worse life. So if we are humanitarians, and we care about the quality of life being recieved, why not attempt to develop the economies of these other countries? Create long term consumers, rather than using abusive subsidies to kill off the aggricultural markets of an entire continent. (Interesting problem, by the way - kill an economy based on growing legal crops, and you get an economy like Columbia - based on growing the only crop where foreigners enjoy a competitive advantage; those that are illegal to grow in the US.)

I'm honestly not sure how much the new illegalizations will help anything. But pretending that immigration reform is just about hating immigrants is missing the big picture.

cranked out at 12:22 PM | |

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