Amnesty vs unskilled-labor shortage? A false dilemma.

Here is a letter I wrote to Daniel Henninger, editorial columnist for the Wall Street Journal, on May 31, 2007, responding to his editorial on that date in which I felt he missed the fundamental point that we do not have to weaken national security, undermine our immigration laws and quotas, or create millions of new voting-Democrats, in order to ensure a steady supply of unskilled or semi-skilled labor.

Dear Mr. Henninger,

In asking “why, then, would Republican politicians and conservative writers want to run the risk of undermining … their core belief the …free market economic forces,” you are, in my opinion, asking the wrong question, perhaps because you are focusing upon the motives of the wrong people.

Your argument is correct, but only as far as it goes.  It is undeniable that our current “labor-force participation” – i.e., the widespread employment of illegal-immigrant workers – is a reflection of market forces.  Our economy has a need for un-skilled and semi-skilled labor, and there do not appear to be enough U.S. citizens who are willing to provide that labor at the offered wages, and so Mexicans and other non-citizens are filling that void by illegally migrating to the U.S. on a short-term or long-term basis and performing the needed labor.  Our federal, state, and local governments are willing to indulge that solution by abstaining from enforcement of our immigration laws.  That is how things are working at the present time, and it is not necessarily an unsatisfactory solution, except that a majority of U.S. citizens seem to be unhappy with at least two aspects of that solution.

The aspect with which most Americans are openly unhappy is that they are concerned about the national-security implications of our lax enforcement of our immigration laws – they suspect that the authorities, in winking at the 12 million illegals who already live here on a more or less permanent basis and the millions more to follow, will be winking at quite a few people whose ambition is to blow us up rather than to build our houses or harvest our crops.  The aspect about which Americans tend to be more circumspect in exposing their views, but one whose potential weight cannot be ignored, is one that might, at another time, have been viewed as simple xenophobia.

We are all familiar with the difficulties that Europe has been experiencing as it awakens to the impact upon its economies and cultures of having absorbed, in just a couple of decades, vast numbers of immigrants who were admitted (or even invited) so that they could perform labor-force participation – i.e., to provide un-skilled or semi-skilled labor at cheap rates.  Turns out the presence of those immigrants is now causing all kinds of problems, some of which are directly related to national security.  I think it is fair to say that there are many, many Americans who hear about our country’s need for highly-educated and skilled workers (and about how hard it is for such a worker to overcome the rigorous quotas contained in our immigration laws and emigrate to the U.S. if he or she is not coming here from Mexico to perform menial labor), and who are wondering why we are so interested in emulating the European example.  Further, I am guessing that a lot of Americans are wondering why we are so interested in letting the market perform labor-force participation only in the case of the menial workers.

In other words, we probably have a national consensus about the need to solve the security problems caused by our lax enforcement of our immigration laws, and we probably can also agree that we have a continuing need for cheap labor, but we apparently do not have a consensus about whether we need to change the legal status of the Mexican immigrants who are performing that labor.  Under these circumstances,  the obvious solution would be to fix the security problem and do nothing to make things either better or worse for the illegal immigrants (present or future).  If the concern is that fixing the security problem would necessarily reduce the inflow of Mexican labor, it would seem easy enough to authorize legal, but limited, migration as needed to meet the supply for that kind of labor.  I am sure I am not the only one to be wondering why we need to be granting amnesty, social or economic benefits, or ultimate citizenship to illegal immigrants as though that were the only possible way of obtaining their services, given that we are told there are 12 million such immigrants who are already performing those services without any promise of such a grant.  (Or do we want to be cynical enough to acknowledge that many of them are still here because we have conditioned them to expect complete amnesty every decade or so?)

In my view, the left is in favor of the amnesty solution for reasons that have nothing to do with free markets and everything to do with creating a lot of new citizens who fit their present view of their natural constituency.  More importantly, the right is asking why, in order for the nation to solve a national security crisis in which there is already a bipartisan consensus for a solution, they are being asked to also solve a labor “problem” that does not even exist, and to do so in a way that could have enormous consequences for the entire nation.  I do not believe the Republican politicians and conservative writers are in any way “undermining … their core belief in the broad benefits of a free market …”  Rather, I believe that what they are trying to say, perhaps in a politically correct manner, is that the labor market is already working just fine, and that we do not have to engineer a huge legislative and social upheaval merely in order to ensure that it is allowed to continue to work.  In other words, let us not attempt to solve anything more than that which needs to be solved.

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