Monday, July 10, 2006

Monday with McKenna: Immigration: Beyond the Abstractions

I don't want to get in my partner's way today, because he's got some opinions on a fairly torrid issue. But I can't resist airing out about this: the reason I don't watch pro sports anymore is because people sink to deeper and deeper levels of depravity, wherever you look at sports these days. That sicko who thunked his head into that other man's sternum could have induced a myocardial infarction and killed the man. Over a soccer game. Positively ill.

There, enough of that. Now: Immigration in America is an issue that's hot all over the world. Witness the opening of this story in Sunday's London Times:

THE date is looming large in America’s debate about immigration: the population is predicted to reach 300m on October 17 and the newborn citizen is as likely as not to be a bouncing Hispanic baby.


Also on Sunday, the New York Times Magazine featured a story on how the immigration debate is manifesting among economists.

So Terry McKenna returns today with some views on where this debate is playing out (and who needs to be invited), and some analysis of the Times Magazine piece. Mr. McKenna:


The “battle” over illegal immigration has been cast as one between Know Nothings and those who want to preserve America’s position as the land of opportunity. By and large, the right wants to make it harder for illegals to come and stay. The left takes its usual position in defense of the downtrodden – but in doing so, they disregard the complaints of small town residents across America who want to know how it happened that their town center has suddenly been taken over by legions of poor men looking for work. Supporters of the so-called free market point out how much our economy benefits low paid labor. Mainstream media outlets straddle the issue. This group of articles from NPR’s website is typical.

In the midst of bigger issues like a long failed war and our now sagging economy, why does this issue remain central to the American debate?

The big guns in the media can’t tell you. It’s not their story. Frank Rich of the New York Times lives in Manhattan – he may see low paid workers, but I doubt they live next door. Same with the Beltway types who live in rich suburbs outside of DC. So our talking heads and op-ed writers are groping in a world of abstractions; they just don’t know.

But I live down the street from illegals, and want to share what I and my neighbors think on this subject. My Puerto Rican born contractor wants to move out of our town because there are too many illegals in his neighborhood. A local Republican election worker who lives 2 blocks from me keeps sending angry letters to the editor of our local rag – and they publish them all. My wife is constantly pointing to yet another “over occupied” dwelling in our neighborhood. By over occupied, I am referring to houses that appear to have way too many adult residents for the number of bedrooms. On summer nights some porches will be filled with 7 or 8 young men, all drinking beer – and inside the house are a few women doing household chores and caring for a number of small children. On Mondays when we put out our recycling, I see enough empties in front of some of these houses to do a frat house proud.

And no, I don’t know for sure that these folks are illegal, but the less settled they are – and these folks are clearly not employed by a steady, mainstream employer – the more likely it is that they are not here with legal papers.

As I said, I live in a small town. But it’s not a white bread suburban neighborhood – it’s a real town. It was originally a factory and mill town. Most of our housing stock was built before 1930. Many are small multi-family houses. Much of our house wiring is outdated and we have more than our share of small house fires—usually 2 or 3 per year in my immediate neighborhood. What happens is that a resident will attempt to run a hair dryer and a space heater off the same 12 amp circuit. Or in the summer, maybe an air conditioner and a micro-wave (they don’t have their own kitchen, so cooking in the bedroom is typical). Most of the time they get away with it, but from time to time a house fire erupts.

These men are rootless (and yes, men predominate). This morning as I drove to a local convenience store, I counted 7 men milling around waiting for work. Once in a while a man will call out, “trabajo?” (WORK?) Last week was exceptionally rainy – perhaps you have read about all of the rain in the Northeast, well that was us. My wife went downtown one midday for an errand (we live a short walk from downtown). The streets were full of men just standing on the street corners hanging out. Since most “casual” labor is outdoor work – rainy weather put a stop to all the yard work and low skilled construction. Needless to say, it’s not fun for a woman to negotiate streets filled with aimless men. And it is not a good thing to have hundreds of men just milling around with nothing to do.

Again, I doubt that either Frank Rich or George Bush (or for that matter, Lou Dobbs) live next door to these folks, but people like me do. And I guess we want to know, how did we lose control of our towns?

If these people do get injured or sick, their medical bill will be paid by our taxes. And if they bring their kids (and yes, a few do) our property taxes will pay to educate them in our public schools.

And no… I don’t begrudge paying taxes to support the civic good. I vote for more democrats than republicans - and last year paid over $40,000 in various state and federal taxes (I pay income taxes to both NY and NJ) but I see a trend that it would behoove someone to control.

Do I want a wall? Maybe. But more than that, I’d like easily verifiable identification that would be sufficient for an employer to rely on as proof of the right to work here. And then I’d like to see better workplace monitoring.

Maybe that sounds like a threat to our liberties, but without controlling who can work and stay here, we have a good chance of filling ourselves up with many more people than we can employ, even at rock bottom wages. Mexico is the biggest contributor. Their population is 100,000,000 with a 40% poverty rate. How many can we employ? I don’t know. But it would be useful to find out very carefully.

Finally, a few thoughts about the Lowenstein article. I think the key comes at the end, "what is it that immigration policy is supposed to achieve?" – and by that, we mean what sort of society are we trying to build.

Since I am not among the wealthy (so don’t benefit from having cheap maids, gardeners and servants) - I think the Europeans are doing a better job. They have more labor controls and so, while they produce less employment, the end result is more equality and prosperity (if we consider income equality, literacy and life expectancy to be the true measures of prosperity).

The key is data. And it turns out, even economists are just guessing. For example – note this sentence:

“Also, and contrary to popular wisdom, undocumented people do support local school districts, since, indirectly as renters or directly as homeowners, they pay property taxes.”

In some case, illegals do pay market rents for legal dwellings, but what about the illegal rooming houses? Across from me, we have at least 10 people, 3 of whom appear to be of school age. But the property tax for the house is based on single family occupancy. In towns like mine, we’ve just added a wing to the middle school. And yet we have no vacant land, and no widespread home construction – so where are all the kids coming from? (Of course the answer is that they are fitted in among our already crowded housing stock). New York City and Los Angeles are among the many mature US cities that have an expanding school aged population.

Let me close with a comment on this sentence:

“Everyone knows in trade there are winners and losers," Card says. "For some reason it doesn't stop people from advocating free trade." He could have said the same of Wal-Mart, which has put plenty of Mom-and-Pop retailers out of business. In fact, any time a firm offers better or more efficient service, somebody will suffer. But the economy grows as a result. "

For Mr. Card (an economist at Berkeley), the benefits of free trade (and presumably wide spread immigration) outweigh the costs. But in fact the costs are not spread out evenly. For those who live in pricey suburbs or in exclusive neighborhoods downtown, illegal immigrants provide cheap labor when they need it (just as free trade provides cheap underwear and socks as well). But for the 55 year old machinist who can no longer find a job because we don’t do that anymore (we’ve farmed out manufacturing to China) he won’t be able to cut lawns either, because we’ve got lots of Mexicans (and Guatemalans) to do it cheaper than he ever could.

—T. McKenna

1 comment:

Terence D said...

In the UK the parties are preying on public fears of rampant immigration.. prompting knee-jerk rule changes and making it tough for us legitimate and skilled workers to live here.