The Heart Of The Immigration Dilemma: Only 5,000 Green Cards To Cover 500,000 Unskilled-labor Jobs

[media id=17183] When reality catches up to Arizonans for their passage of their misbegotten police-state immigration law, it's going to be ugly an

When reality catches up to Arizonans for their passage of their misbegotten police-state immigration law, it's going to be ugly and unpleasant. If other states really are considering passing similar laws, they will want to watch what happens to Arizona -- and they will inevitably wind up thinking twice.

We've pointed out previously -- as have the nation's police chiefs -- that the law is almost certain to in fact increase violent crime and dilute law enforcement's capacity to deal with it in Arizona.

And that will only be the first consequence (and a decidedly ironic one, since this law was sold as being a means to crack down on violent crime). The longest-lasting and most significant, however, will be the economic one: When the Latino workforce flees Arizona, their economy will suffer a dramatic downturn unlike any they've seen in decades.

It's already starting to happen:

Arizona’s hard-hitting immigration law is driving Hispanics out of the state weeks before the controversial law goes into effect.

Although concrete figures are not available, anecdotal evidence suggests Hispanics, both legal residents and illegal immigrants, are starting to flee.

Schools in Hispanic neighborhoods are reporting abnormal enrollment drops, and businesses that serve Hispanics also report that business is down, according to a USA Today report published Wednesday.

The report suggests that the immigration law is compounding demographic trends that have already significantly curtailed illegal immigration during the past two years. The bad economy has been the primary deterrent to many Hispanic immigrants seeking to enter Arizona, says Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

“If you have a bad economy and a hostile environment, then that’s likely to cause people to think twice about coming, and possibly even to leave,” Mr. Passel says.

... Any loss, however, will be a loss for the Arizona economy, [David Gutierrez, a professor of immigration history, at the University of California San Diego] suggests.

“Latinos...are a highly flexible, highly exploitable work force, a buffer to economic downturns,” he says. “Many of the industries here – agriculture, service industries, low-end manufacturing, construction – are massively dependent on undocumented workers.

“If I were able to conduct an experiment and pay all of Arizona’s undocumented workers to not work for two weeks, the economy would come to a screeching, crashing halt instantaneously.”

This brought to mind a video forwarded to me from my friend Jimmy at McCranium, an Eastern Washington blog, of a Pasco immigration attorney named Tom Roach giving an informational talk to group of local citizens in Kennewick on May 29.

The talk is excellent, and I recommend watching the whole thing if you're interested. Because Roach effectively drills down to the heart of our dilemma with immigration -- namely, our current laws are so screwed up they have no chance of meeting the nation's economic needs or effectively dealing with natural immigration pressures that are driven by not just the economy, but the American Dream itself:

Roach: And then at the bottom of the food chain, as you can see, there are low-skilled workers. So those low-skilled workers are farm workers, janitors, chambermaids, busboys, dishwashers, gardeners, nannies, domestics.

Okay, so every year, the government, the U.S. government, hands out green cards to 5,000 people in that category, low-skilled workers, for the entire country. Five thousand a year. And up till about 18 months ago, this economy created something on the order of 500,000 low-skill jobs. Five hundred thousand low-skill jobs, but only 5,000 green cards.

So if you don't learn anything else tonight, take this home, and that cranky next-door neighbor keeps saying, 'I don't understand why the Mexicans just don't get a green card' -- I think it was in the Tri-City Herald today [actually, it ran May 26, there was a letter to the editor: 'Jeez, why don't they just get a green card before they come up?' It's impossible! It's impossible! It's impossible! OK?

Roach goes on to explain in "500 words or less" -- actually, it's a good deal more, but that's OK, because it still makes great sense -- why we now are faced with a situation where we have 10 million undocumented immigrants in this country: namely, the vast majority of those unskilled jobs are not jobs that native-born Americans are willing to do any longer: harvesting agricultural products, landscaping work, janitorial and other services.

I am reminded of a woman I met on the Dreams Across America train in 2007 who ran a landscaping business in northern California. She told me that when she attempted to hire only documented citizens, she received only three applications for 14 positions, and two of the three quit on the first day, and the third quit on the next. She now hires undocumented workers regularly because they're reliable, hard-working, and do excellent work.

I learned this lesson myself at a relatively early age. When I was in high school in the early '70s, I earned my summer college money by working on farms in southern Idaho -- specifically, I used to be part of an irrigation-pipe hauling crew on a potato-wheat-hay farm near Shelley. It was a formative experience in a lot of ways, because it taught me how to work, and imparted a work ethic I maintain to this day. But it was a hard learning experience -- at the beginning of the summer, like most of my workmates, I hated the job (which entailed hauling twenty-two pieces of twenty-foot-long irrigation pipe twenty yards and forming a new line, for which we were paid $1.25). I had to learn how to shut out the distractions and focus on my work, so that I was eventually able to whip out two lines an hour, and ten lines per morning and evening each. It wasn't a lot of money, but it eventually added up.

Still, as a crew, we seriously sucked. We were unreliable -- some of my workmates never really learned how to put their heads down and work, and whined incessantly, and often just didn't show up, leaving the rest of us to pick up their slack. And the quality of our work was equally unreliable; if a line wasn't properly laid, it would burst when filled with water, meaning the boss had to run down the line and fix it. It seemed he had to do that a lot.

Two years after I graduated from high school, in 1976, I drove out to the farm to visit my old boss. (By then, I had graduated to a high-paying road-construction job for summer college-money work.) I was a little surprised to find that he had replaced his old high-school pipe crews with a crew of Mexican laborers, most of whom I gathered were undocumented. He grinned broadly as he told me how much more reliable they were, how much better workers they were, and how much he enjoyed working with them. It beat spoiled white high-school kids any day.

I understood and sympathized. The reality was that we were relatively spoiled, and were poorly fit for that kind of labor. And we were that way for a reason: because our parents, all our parents, were trying to live the American Dream.

Part of that dream means building a better life not just for yourself but for your children. You want them to have a better life than the one you had, to grow up and get a better job than yours, to move up the ladder just as you have done. So you prepare them to excel in academics and technology and other pursuits -- not in performing hard, low-skill labor. That's the life you want them not to have to lead.

But because we pursue the American Dream, we will always have a need for immigrants, particularly those who perform unskilled labor. As the economy grows, so will the demand for that kind of labor. And we need immigration laws that will help fill that demand rationally and in a controlled way, not through the induced illegality of our current system.

Blaming the immigrants themselves, as the Arizona law does, is not a solution: it only worsens the problem. When Arizona businesses start failing because they cannot obtain a legal workforce under their new regime, the rest of the nation will get to see why just "enforcing the laws we have on the books" is no longer a viable option -- socially, legally, or economically.

About David Neiwert

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