Monday, February 13, 2017


I am of the opinion that media interviews with officials of a current Administration are, and have always been, a waste of time. They're tiresome charades in the name of "balance." No competent administration is going to allow the press to have access to someone who can't toe the party line, and so what you end up with a mixture of deflections and carefully inserted talking points.

But I do think that White House adviser Stephen Miller made a good point on "Meet The Press," when he noted that: "If people don't like the immigration laws of the United States, they can reform them." Now, to be sure, Mr. Miller is also being somewhat glib. The set of people who can reform the immigration laws of the United States is rather select - the 535 members of Congress, and even then, they have to contend with the risk of a Presidential veto and/or the oversight of the courts. Mr. Miller is at least somewhat correct, however, in his insinuation that what's missing from the immigration debate is a serious talk about changing the legal framework through which people are allowed into the country. And this has lead to the somewhat backwards situation that sneaking into the United States makes much more sense than attempting to be above board.

In the end, from where I see things, the illegality of much of the migration into the United States serves the purposes of any number of people, and that's why it persists. Labor migration (and, while we're at it, let's throw in labor trafficking) creates a class of low-paid workers who have the willingness and conditioning to perform menial work at very low rates of pay. And this keeps prices down. When employers complain that "Americans are unwilling to do the work," what they really mean is that "Americans are unwilling to do the work at a wage that allows us to maintain both our profitability and our pricing structure." And there's a lot of truth to that. Because, when you ask them, immigrant aren't exactly clamoring for the jobs themselves - no one performs years of physically demanding and low-paid labor to put their children through college simply to have them return to the field or the packing plant floor. And for Americans, who value upward mobility in life, jobs that are both low-paying and low status often aren't worth pursuing.

But the flip side of that national self-importance is price sensitivity. While the United States manages to stay out of the trouble caused by subsidizing everyday products and services, people grumble when prices go up, and in an economy that's driven by constant purchases of non-essential items, keeping people feeling flush enough to go out and shop is an important component of overall economic "heath." Food is a requirement, so if prices went up to the point that wages were high enough to pull in Americans looking for work, the effects on business would be widespread. Smaller producers, unable to effectively take advantage of economies of scale, would likely find themselves fighting to hang on to their customers. And other businesses would start to suffer as the disposable income that they rely on was eaten up by higher food prices. Not to mention that agricultural products that could be substituted for something less expensive would suddenly find their sales dropping. Domestic employers who rely on keeping their labor costs as low as possible are also beholden to the fact that much of their labor is in the nation illegally.

In order to keep the balance of consumer prices and producer profitability where it is if immigration laws were liberalized, wages and benefits would have to be allowed to sink to what migrant workers are currently paid. And it's unlikely that this would happen. This creates a strange situation in which workers in the country illegally benefit from the current labor laws because the main reason why they can compete with legal workers is that they can undercut them by working for wages too low to be otherwise allowable. In other words, in a regime where all of those workers were legal, and subject to the same rights and protections as legal workers, would result in a lower overall demand for their labor. (And, by the same token, wages high enough to draw citizens and other legal residents into those jobs would also reduce the demand for poor immigrant laborers to do the work.

In this sense, it's possible to make a case (although here is were I admit to not knowing how strong a case) for the idea that the public at large, employers and even the migrants themselves have a stake in the current version of the status quo, and the reason why it hasn't been reformed is that reforms that unambiguously make one or more groups better off without trade-offs simply aren't available.

But... I'm also a cynic, and so there's a part of me that suspects another reason why immigration laws don't really change. Removing them means that they're no longer available to use as weapons when we want them. Out current method of enforcement, which tends to be one of mostly looking the other way unless we catch someone in the act of crossing or they've done something serious means that we still have the ability to turn the sights on anyone we disapprove of. Employers (and traffickers, for that matter) are already said to use this as a bargaining chip. Complain too loudly about the deal that's been offered or how it's implemented, the implicit threat goes, and you'll be reported to immigration authorities. And while I don't think that this is something that the public as a whole outwardly subscribes to, I think that it hanging there, like a sword of Damocles over the heads of people in the country illegally, serves a purpose. Make the wrong enemies, and prepare for deportation. "Undesirable" and "criminal," while they may overlap, are not one in the same. But when being in the nation is itself a crime, there is always the rationale for shipping the undesirable to their home nation.

In the end, I'm unconvinced that a solution to the issue of immigration is difficult. Instead, it's "merely" expensive. And we don't want to pay the costs. But we're not necessarily above passing them on to other people, and perhaps that's what we need to start looking at.

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