Saturday, February 18, 2006

Immigration and the Minutemen

There is a perception that illegal immigration is tearing apart the fabric of the U.S. economy, and that the economic and criminal costs of supporting such a large number of illegal immigrants is an unbearable burden on the U.S. I wonder if that it true.
Let me start by saying that I firmly believe that the U.S., and every country, has the right to secure its borders. The ability to exclude is an important one, and border security is not something to be taken lightly. That being said, you can probably guess that I do not agree with the hard-line to illegal immigrants; I hesitate to say that, because I do not approve of visa overstays or forged document-facilitated entries. My problem is with a blanket "export 'em all" rule, and with the aggressive targeting and harassment of individual illegals by citizens. The Minutemen are by far the most visible group today, but that is not the only group, and many many more people hold similar policy views as the Minutemen while disapproving of their methods.
I have three basic issues with hard-liners towards illegal immigration. Firstly, they are off the mark with regards to good public policy; their proposed solutions are out of proportion and off the mark with regards to fixing the problems caused by illegal immigration. Secondly, the Minutemen and their ideological brethren frame the debate in economic terms, but actually give battle on cultural terms; this is xenophobia in a milder form. Thirdly, the minutemen are targeting a group that is easy to attack because the individuals have less rights, tend to be poor, and are easy to blame for a multitude of problems.
I should start with a disclaimer; I volunteer for an immigration charity (Catholic Charities DC) and am an immigrant myself, so there is an initial bias. However, my family and almost all of the people I've worked with had legal status when entering the country, and legal status when staying. It is possible that I would be resentful of those who do not enter through the proper channels, as my parents worked very hard to do. Let's call my situational biases "mostly harmless", then.

Public Policy
As a matter of policy the Minutemen focus on the lack of taxes that illegals pay and the cost of paying for their children's education. One effort underway locally here in the DC area is the day laborer project. The local chapter of the Minutemen is organizing observations of day laborers congregating for work everyday at a newly built area in Herndon, VA. Peter Gemma, a Maryland member of the Minutemen, wrote recently about the group in the DC Examiner. He claimed that they men and women of the organization were in attendance because "Federal politicians are unable or unwilling to respond to the security and economic threats posed by runaway immigration." Another group member apparently claimed that one in four immigrants in Virginia is illegal. The central point seems to be that all of these illegals were taking jobs from American citizens and legal residents. I doubt the statistics bear that out; most illegals take work that is highly undesirable and that would be anathema to people who had full legal protections. The Center for Immigration Studies has done an analysis that touched on illegal immigration impact on American workers and wages, and found that most workers faced no job competition from the immigrants, legal or otherwise. Although it should be admitted that of those who are harmed, the poorest Americans are the ones most harmed by illegal, predominantly Mexican or Central American, immigration. Wages decreased 3% to 8% in some occupations, but I suspect that this is what fuels the American farm and labor economy. Is this a bad thing? Probably. Is the solution to close the borders? Probably not. Guest worker programs may alleviate the tension by formalizing the economic fact that agriculture depends on cheap immigrant labor to remain competitive (a condition predicted and described 15 years ago in Labor Management Decisions). By acknowledging the existence and economic necessity of labor, a guest worker program would compel the payment of taxes and allow federal and local governments to track immigrants to protect both them and their host communities. At any rate, there are programs up for debate through normal legislative channels. Quasi-vigilantism, even by well-meaning, intelligent people, is not a viable answer.

The Scope of the Debate
If you look back over his submission to the DC Examiner, Gemma clearly draws a line: "we are like you, they are totally different." I'm not saying that he is a racist, but I am saying that he paints himself and his group as the champions of American values and culture. He makes laborers his proxy for illegal immigrants, and makes them all out to be outsiders. That may accurate in a sense, because language barriers and cultural barriers exist. The problem is that the Minutemen do not seek to provide the immigrants, legal or otherwise, with a slice of the American economic pie, and that slice is what drives integration. By isolating the group and driving it underground, Gemma tactics actually harm his image of a fluid "melting pot". If the Minutemen want to promote America, they should work to expand English instruction services to the US-born (and this citizenship-eligible) children of illegal immigrants. That goes contrary to the secondary goal of American protectionism: to deny services to the people who enter the country illegally and their children. The Minuteman position is inherently contradictory in practice.

Easy Targets
My largest problem with targeting illegal or quasi-legal immigrants is that they are the poorest, most marginalized, and least protected members of the community. If arrested (rightly or wrongly), they are often not informed of their ability to contact their local consulate. The is abuse of them by employers, because the abusers know that no one will come forward for fear of being deported (the new term is "subject to removal proceedings"). They are easy to target legislatively because no one will speak up for them. US citizens can harass people who are suspected illegals knowing that no one will protest. I have heard many, many stories about employers (who are only an indirect target of Minuteman wrath) not paying immigrants, legal or otherwise, because they know that ignorance of the law and fear of being deported will keep them silent, even if no such threat exists. Other abuse was written about quite eloquently by Laura Roberts in the the Houston Catholic Worker. To attack a population that is inherently helpless seems unjust. Overstatement of the economic harm is very possible because there are few who want to speak up for the other side, and when they do speak up it is for the farm owners or business owners who benefit from low cost laborers. The laborers themselves have few advocates. I think of it as akin to vice squads targeting prostitutes instead of the johns or, more productively, the underlying causes of prostitution in the first place. Don't read too much into that analogy; it breaks down.


With any luck, the Minutemen who are the most considerate and aware of the humanity of the undocumented immigrants will be willing to compromise on the harshest of their tactics; with luck, the illegal immigrants who are talented, hard-working, and responsible will be given a chance to contribute to our national economy in a legal way.


Blogger Joe Mama said...

The more these Herndon, VA "Minutemen" try to portray themselves as regular Americans, the more they reveal themselves as bigots and racists. Sure, they're "polite" bigots, carrying their signs and talking about their PTA meetings, but they're bigots nonetheless. Why do they assume the people at the day labor center are illegal? And why are they concerned with people being paid sub-minimum wages? Don't they have more important things to worry about, such as the infrastructure of this country crumbling while billions of dollars are spent on nation building? Shouldn't they be concerned with the fact that we pay more for medical care in the U.S. than people in most industrialized nations, yet most bankruptcies are as a result of medical bills incurred by people who do have health insurance. It's my guess that most illegal aliens pay withholding and Social Security tax but will they be filing a 1040 to get a refund? I don't think so. How about getting retirement benefits after paying Social Security tax for years? So in effect, illegal aliens are not only peforming jobs that most people wouldn't want, but they're contributing to the economy without getting any of the benefits. By the way, I knew of a teacher in Texas who taught in the public schools for 35 years, but was worried about the "Mez-kins" moving into her neighborhood. She must have been one of the polite bigots since she managed to keep her job all those years. Can you imagine what her attitude must have been to the countless Hispanic students she "taught"?

3:07 AM  

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