Why do we have immigration when unemployment is high? Nobody in Washington will give the honest answer. Employers want cheap labor. They benefit tremendously from legal and illegal immigration in the current slow-growth economy. We have a million legal immigrants per year, and the vast majority of them enter the labor market competing with Americans for scarce job opportunities. The result is wage depression, though there are other factors that restrict wage growth, and persistently high unemployment above the 5 percent level that most economists believe is unhealthy.
Rather than have a million legal immigrants plus more than three hundred thousand more job seekers coming over on temporary work visas year in and year out without a pause, we should ask the simple question, do we need any immigrants? The only constituency that claims there is such a need is employers. And they have essentially written U.S. immigration law for a very long time.
The primary type of immigration is for “family reunification.” That means a U.S. citizen can sponsor their immediate relatives for permanent residency and then citizenship. This sounds like a perfectly reasonable basis on which to base an immigration policy. But it makes no economic sense and has disastrous consequences. Spouses, children and parents of citizens may be unskilled, uneducated, and thus likely to become “public charges,” the bane of immigration. Economists agree that the U.S. has ample unskilled labor. (The Department of Labor, which is supposed to protect the interests of U.S. workers, has said this for more than twenty years.) But the exception is companies that rely on this labor, particularly food processors, cleaning companies and agriculture. They always want more because more means less pay. These companies could care less about public benefits, unemployment rates and rest of the pathologies that an excess of immigrants can bring. And they turn very nasty when criticized. Anyone who brings up the unemployment is a racist. Or they roll their eyes and tell you American won’t do nasty jobs. Tell that to the nation’s sewer workers who are mostly unionized, well-paid and American.
There is currently no numerical cap in the number of spouses and children that immigrants can bring over. There needs to be, and that cap must reflect economic reality, the skill level of the immigrants, the unemployment rate in the labor market where they will live, and the likelihood they will become a public charge. If it’s likely, then the sponsors should be required to sign surety bonds to reimburse the government for any welfare benefits the immigrants incur. It might seem callous to policy makers to restrict family reunification, but the current system is callous to Americans at the bottom of the labor market. The only beneficiaries are employers.
Noncitizens should not be permitted to sponsor anyone. The idea that green card holders, people in this country on a probationary basis, should be allowed to bring over their children and parents is nonsensical as an initial proposition (if they want to be with their relatives, then why are they here?), but in a tight labor market, without any justification except to employers. We currently allow this.
Our experience with Mexican immigration highlights the domination of immigration policy by employers of cheap labor. In 1907, the country was reeling from three decades of mass immigration, and Congress appointed a blue-ribbon commission to make recommendations for reform of the nearly open-border policy (only Chinese were excluded). The Dillingham Commission recommended quotas limiting immigration by country of origin—but not from Mexico. It found that they were “indolent” and “nonassimilable” but also “a source of labor to substitute for the Asiatics in the most undesirable seasonal occupations.” The demand for cheap labor carried the day.
Mexicans have been used to lower wages ever since. The government encouraged this for twenty years with the Bracero program. It only ended when Mexico complained that too many of its citizens were leaving the country, thereby raising the price of labor on that side of the border. That legitimate complaint, not the poor treatment of the Mexican braceros, ended the program in the 1960s. But there have been other guest-worker programs since then, and all are justified by the simple fact that growers don’t want to pay Americans market wages to work in the fields. Are fields worse than sewers?
Last week I spoke to an aide to a Republican Congressman who was a member of the “Gang of Eight” that tried to negotiate an immigration bill, which could pass the Republican House. This never materialized, and this particular Congressman dropped out of the group. I asked him why we need immigration when we have high unemployment. He told me it would be un-American not to allow citizens to bring their foreign spouses and children to this country. I asked if there should be any numerical limits on this type of immigration when unemployment is high. He said no. I asked if there should be any numerical limits on immigration at all, including by employers. He said labor market conditions should be considered, but the Congressman does not believe in limits. I asked how immigration helps anyone except employers. He gave me this example. Suppose someone wants to open an Indian restaurant in a rural area and needs a chef. (The example is farfetched. How much demand is there for Indian cuisine in rural areas.) The owner should be allowed to sponsor an Indian chef as an immigrant. And if he does, it creates employment, for others, waiters and busboys. I asked why the owner could not find an Indian chef in the U.S. He responded that there might be some looking for work in cities, but would they relocate to this rural community? I wondered why someone from India would relocate to that community. And then he gave me a candid response, perhaps unplanned. He said the restaurant owner might not be able to pay for an American citizen chef to take the job in the small town. So it comes down to cheap labor.
There might be a few jobs that cannot be filled by three hundred million Americans, but one has to strain to think of such a job. A labor economist I spoke to gave the example of a university in North Dakota needing a professor to teach Farsi. That sounds just like the Indian chef example, and is just as silly. Are there any Farsi-language professors in the United States? If so, how about making one of them an attractive employment package to relocate to North Dakota? Or will they be unable to find a local Persian restaurant to serve them? Then, do we need to bring over a Persian chef, and more Persians so the professor won’t be lonely? Perhaps the North Dakota University just won’t be able to entice any qualified Farsi professor to move there. That suggests there may actually be very little demand for studying Farsi in North Dakota. And there are perfectly good reasons for that, given the ethnic mix of the state. The case for an immigrant worker makes no sense.
We are the only major country in the world to confer citizenship on everyone born here even if the parents are here illegally (“birthright citizenship”). At least that is the current interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, enacted after the Civil War to prevent the southern states from denying citizenship to freed slaves. Why this should apply to the children of illegal aliens is bizarre, and, in a sense, suicidal. A nation that encourages foreigners to enter its territory illegally can hardly be considered a sovereign nation.
In 1898 the Supreme Court decided that a Chinese son of legal aliens was an American citizen by birth. Does this decision apply to people in the country illegally? The Supreme Court has never faced the question. Surely, if there is to be immigration reform, we want to close this loophole. It draws thousands of illegal immigrants to the country, and has spawned the “birth tourism” industry. But the “reform” bill passed by the Senate last year did not address it at all. The congressional aide said his boss would not support any change. I asked why not. He said tinkering with the Fourteenth Amendment was a bad idea.
In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which for the first time made it illegal to hire an illegal immigrant. But the law was to be carried out by employers. They, the beneficiaries of cheap immigrant labor, were supposed to inspect the documents tendered by job applicants and refuse to hire those whose documents looked fake. But the law also contained an “antidiscrimination” provision that made it illegal to refuse to hire on the basis of foreign appearance or accent. Many illegal immigrants look or sound foreign, just as we do when we’re abroad. That plus the natural inclination of employers to want to hire illegals gutted the law, which was not a surprise. A different provision of the same law established a new guest-worker program for agriculture.