Monday, April 03, 2006

Immigrants and jobs: Some actual data

John M. Broder makes an important contribution to the debate on immigration in Sunday's New York Times ("Immigrants and the Economics of Hard Work," April 2, 2006). He begins by dealing with what has so far been the dominant cliche in the discussion:

It is asserted both as fact and as argument: the United States needs a constant flow of immigrants to perform jobs Americans will not stoop to do. But what if those jobs paid $50 an hour, with benefits, instead of $7 or $10 or $15?

$50 an hour? Show me the shit, and give me a shovel. Hell, I'll bring my own shovel.

The numbers Bill Marsh provides---from several different sources---in a sidebar to Broder's piece tell a different, more complicated story than the jobs-native-born-workers-don't-want-to-do cliche:

Where illegal immigrants work: 24% of the workers in farming, fishing, and forestry are illegal immigrants. 17% of workers in "cleaning"/janitorial work are illegal. 14% of construction workers are illegal. 12% in food preparation, 9% in manufacturing, and 7% in transport. Illegal immigrants make up only 2% of all other occupations.

Broder grants that California agriculture is an important exception to the national figures. But Marsh provides some numbers suggesting that agriculture could raise wages significantly for workers without, as popular opinion assumes, raising prices drastically for everyone else and contributing seriously to inflation:

The average US household spends around $370 a year on fruit and vegetables. Farmers get $65 of that, and farm workers get $22. If farmers raised present farm worker wages---now $8.83 an hour---40% to around $12 an hour, that would still only add $9 to the total that households spend on produce every year, or about 2 or 3 cents per dollar.

And there are other numbers to ponder:

Immigrants, legal and illegal, over the past 20 years have reduced wages for native-born workers by 3-5%.

Native-born black (down 4.5 %) and Hispanic (down 5%) workers suffered the most from illegal immigration via wage reduction over the last 20 years.

"Since 2000, an estimated 850,000 unauthorized immigrants have entered the United States each year, a population roughly equivalent to a city the size of Indianapolis." Since 1992, the number of illegal immigrants in the US has grown from 3.9 million to 11.1 million.

Being concerned about these numbers does not make the people of the United States racist. We should all---left, right, and center---be able to stipulate that some combination of border enforcement and clamping down on employers is required to deal with this problem. One thing is certain in this debate: playing the race card is way off-base. So-called progressives who claim concern about the welfare of the country's working class need to acknowledge this if they are to have any credibility in this debate.

After Randy Shaw played the race card recently in the immigration debate, I sent a letter to the editor with a contrary view.


"Can it be that liberal San Francisco does not really care whether thousands of its residents are made criminals due to racist attacks on the current generation of predominately Latino immigrants? Based on the city's inaction, it is difficult to draw a contrary conclusion." (Randy Shaw, BeyondChron)

The only reason Mr. Shaw finds it hard to draw another conclusion is that he is blinkered by his "progressive" ideology. The reality is that people of goodwill can differ on this issue without being racists. In fact it's not about race at all. It's long been a left-wing assumption that the US should open its southern border to whoever wants to enter, a dubious notion that is even more dubious since 9/11. 

BeyondChron has rightly been concerned about the conditions facing black people in SF, so what about all the jobs taken by illegal immigrants that could go to US-born black people? As someone who has been doing kitchen work for years, it's striking to me how Spanish-speaking folks---wonderful workers and great people, to be sure---are now dominating that labor pool and how few black people there are. 

And then there is this reality confronted by anyone who actually labors for a living: An unlimited supply of foreign workers---whether legal or illegal---undermines the wage scale for everyone. That's a class issue, not a race issue.

Rob Anderson

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