The Problem in Immigration Reform?

9 Jul

The following article has been written by Chaste, an astute commentator who has written for Spincycle before.

Note: The author has used the phrase, “illegal workers” only when the illegality is specifically implicated. Elsewhere, he has used the phrase “foreign workers.”

Discussions about immigration reform have acquired a feverish intensity. Not only is there a pervasive sense of the intractability of the problem, there are wildly differing accounts of the nature and extent of the problem. These are tell-tale signs that the problem is probably overstated, and that there is a simple and straightforward solution — that the problem lies in the public’s attitude to foreign workers and immigration (read race-class nexus in substantial part). Here below, I will try to show that this conjecture is largely true.

Reliable data about the effect of illegal workers on the economy is hard to come by, in part because of basic disagreements about which factors to measure. Therefore, I will rely on analytical reasoning. On its face, the contention that immigrants who come to America in search of work are a burden on the economy seems absurd. The economy supports most native workers through their parasitic (from the economic point of view) phases of childhood and early youth. Americans for instance, consume close to $100,000 in school funding alone by the end of their high school. It is inconceivable that the average foreign worker could consume public services on a scale even remotely close to that. The economy gets a free lunch from foreign workers because it gets the benefit of their productive years without ever supporting them in their parasitic/dependent phase. This is a minor variation on what we know as the “brain drain.” That it goes largely unacknowledged points out the close ties between class and worth in this society.

Other popular arguments such as the burden on public schools also strain credulity. It is unclear that a child who may be here through no choice of its own should be lumped together in the same categories as illegal immigrant workers. In any case, since most of these children will grow up to be Americans, the rational approach to measuring their impact on the economy is within the trajectory of their own lives. Some even lament the supposedly downward pressure on wages. Yet wage levels are not determined merely by the market internals of demand and supply. External checks in forms like foreign competition are significant. The assessments of regulatory agencies like the Federal Reserve regarding the optimal wage pressures in a labor market are particularly important.

The proposed solutions are equally mired in unreal contentions and assumptions. Despite the clamor for walls and tighter border security, there is no evidence that migration patterns are responsive to anything other than economic opportunities for foreign workers. Programs that allow employers to check the immigration status of their employees voluntarily have produced no results. Massive state action in the form of imprisonment against employers, or deportation/imprisonment against foreigners who have been in this country for many years, is probably too controversial to be viable.

For the record, I will quickly lay out the simplest solution, one that is obvious to anyone who has given the issue any serious thought. The solution makes the following basic assumptions:

  • The government has an interest in having a stable and competitive labor market. It has the right to use immigration as a tool to address market distortions caused by structural problems (health and legal sectors are dramatically over-compensated relative to other sectors), or by cultural stigma (specific types of casual labor do not attract American workers at a pay rate appropriate to the relative lack of required skills). The government can achieve this with minor modifications to the concept of “prevailing wage rate.” The government currently uses the “prevailing wage rate” to protect American skilled workers from wage cuts due to immigration.
  • To the extent that American workers may be disadvantaged by immigration, this is largely a function of the disparity in rights between citizens and foreign workers. The obvious solution would involve not depriving foreign workers of rights, but rather drowning them in rights. It is important here to distinguish between rights and entitlements: rights simply give privileges within a transaction such as employment without any guarantees that the transaction (employment) will actually happen whereas an entitlement guarantees that the transaction will happen. Currently, the government protects victims of sexual trafficking, and it can similarly protect foreign workers when employers violate their rights (henceforth “violating employers”). Indeed the government should allow the foreign workers to recover substantial financial damages from violating employers.
  • The government should use market incentives rather than administrative regulation because it will enable more effective implementation. As mentioned above imposing greater burdens on illegal workers is unhelpful because it is their very lack of rights that makes them attractive employees. Besides, with no rights, even deportation has failed as a deterrent. Imprisonment for violating employers will likely be politically controversial. Very stiff fines against violating employers will target a group, which is particularly sensitive to such incentives, and will have an increased chance of political viability.
  • The government should avoid controversy and increase efficiency by delegating implementation to private enterprise. American lawyers have proved themselves gods of the enterprise by defying even the most basic laws of economics like the price supply curve: even as the country is drowning in lawyers, they continue to rake in enormous incomes. The government should allow private civil actions in court in which lawyers for successful foreign workers can recover lawyer’s fees from violating employers and get a percentage of the recovered damages.

The broad outline of a solution is clear. The government should determine the minimum wage rate for different professions based on the needs of the economy. Thus, the minimum wage rate can be lower than the prevailing wage rate in over-compensated professions so that those sectors do not become a drag on the economy. Conversely, the minimum wage rate can be higher than the prevailing wage rate for lower skill jobs because the low prevailing wages are often possible only because of indirect government subsidies in the form of social services. The foreign workers should have the right and incentive to sue violating employers. If successful, the foreign workers should get a permanent right to stay, should get their lawyer’s fees paid by their violating employer, and be able to recover substantial damages from violating employers (between $50,000 and $100,000). The prospect of 40% of $50,000 – $100,000 in addition to lawyer fees will motivate lawyers to pursue violating employers aggressively. Once these measures ensure enforcement, the government can throw open employment opportunities to foreigners, and increase labor supply in over-compensated and culturally stigmatized sectors. The minimum wage rate and the threat of legal action will make employers wary of hiring foreign workers in other sectors except in special circumstances.

This simple solution is obvious to anyone who has given the matter serious thought, or to anyone who has a passing familiarity with the legal sector. Yet mainstream media never mentions it. The public eschews practical solutions in favor of posturing in part because as discussed above the alleged problems likely do not exist. The idea that foreign workers should have the rights to sue American employers is anathema to American conservatives. They are unlikely to accept the idea to resolve fictitious problems. Liberals do not see immigration as much of a problem and are content with the status quo. Americans would dearly love to have the jobs themselves, and have the work done by foreigners, all without the inconvenience of having the foreigners in their midst. Failing this, they have settled for the perks of cheap labor, the comforting disparity in the rights enjoyed by themselves and the largely non-white foreign workers, and the self-indulgence of a self-righteous hysteria centered on law and legitimacy.