Daybook

The Immigration Blame Game

Paul Krugman has an interesting column today on immigration. (And before I forget, if you’re looking for an excellent analysis on the health care crisis , check out his article recent in the New York Review of Books.)

Krugman says that the US economy benefits very little from illegal immigration, because immigrants who are willing to take low-wage jobs are taking them from native-born have-nots. It’s not that they’re literally stealing jobs from true-blue Americans, as some rabble-rousers would have it, it’s that the presence of illegal immigrants that are willing to work for peanuts depresses wages for everyone, native-born or not.

As an economic argument, I’m sure this makes sense, but it still gives me trouble. When we say that immigrants are "willing to accept" low-wage work, we makes it sound like they are choosing between equally available options —hmm, I’ll either take this job as a corporate attorney or take this job as a migrant farm worker. What the hell, I like to work outside, let me take the farm job. The problem is that by making this seem like a choice that they are "willing to accept", as if they had other options, we place at least part of the blame for the lack of living wage work on illegal immigrants themselves.

This is more than unfair, this is counterproductive. By blaming illegal immigrants for any part of our  low-wage labor problem, we neatly  side-step the real issue, which is this: too many employers fail to provide a reasonable, living wage.

Practically speaking, we can’t stop illegal immigration entirely– but we certainly can mitigate the effect that illegal immigration has on the economy by increasing the minimum wage across the country, and by adequately enforcing minimum wage laws now, and once we’ve changed them. This would also help a lot with another economic effect of illegal immigration: we pay more for illegal immigrant’s health and education costs than they pay in in taxes, as Krugman points out. Of course they don’t pay enough in taxes, they don’t earn enough to cover their living expenses. I’m no economist, but it seems to me that more people earning higher wages equals higher tax revenues. (And certainly, by making illegal immigrants into felons, we’re making it far less likely that they’ll ever come anywhere near a tax return.)

Bottom line: Illegal immigrants may make it possible for employers to pay too little for hard work, but they are not to blame for their own exploitation. So let’s stop talking about the work that illegal immigrants are "willing to accept", and let’s start looking at the forces that the determine the wages that employers are "willing to offer".

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2 thoughts on “The Immigration Blame Game

  1. I didn’t read Krugman’s column but I think his argument as you described falls completely in line with the economist perspective on the world. Everything is simply a matter of supply and demand — these workers are fill ins for the demand in the market that is unmet by non foreign born residents. The problem is that the reason non foreign born residents don’t take these jobs is in part because it is not a survivable wage (as Alison pointed out above). The idea of ensuring livable wages for all people isn’t exactly new so why doesn’t it ever take hold? My cynical answer is that because the immediate benefits are to those with little political power or voice in America, including immmigrants. But I also think it is part of a bigger issue that Alison reminded me of in the text above. The blame the victim mentality that is demonstrated constantly in current US policy. I’m thinking specially of welfare reform here, but it falls in line with the current immigration battle as well. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all yet, but I know that it deeply concerns me that we continue as a society to place further pressure on those who need or ask for help.

  2. “When we say that immigrants are “willing to accept” low-wage work, we makes it sound like they are choosing between equally available options –hmm, I’ll either take this job as a corporate attorney or take this job as a migrant farm worker. What the hell, I like to work outside, let me take the farm job. The problem is that by making this seem like a choice that they are “willing to accept”, as if they had other options, we place at least part of the blame for the lack of living wage work on illegal immigrants themselves.”

    They do have other options, not come here illegally in the first place and stay in Mexico.

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