Minor Thoughts from me to you

Immigrants: We Need Them

(Part of the Intra-Madison Immigration Debate.)

(Welcome, Carnival of the Badger readers. Thanks for visiting. Feel free to look around and explore the rest of the site, while you're here.)

Update: Jenna responds to this post.

In my last post, I talked about America's ability to absorb immigrants. I believe that not only are we capable of absorbing vast numbers of immigrants, but that we need immigrants to keep our economy running. I don't mean we need immigrants to "do jobs that Americans won't do". I mean that we need immigrants to do jobs that Americans will be unable to do.

The Great Retirement is growing ever closer. In 2011 -- just five years from now -- the Baby Boomers will start retiring. Over the following 18 years, 79 million Americans will retire. Every American household owes the Baby Boomers more than $500,000 in promised retirement and medical benefits. But the problem extends far beyond promised retirement benefits. Over the next 23 years, 79 million jobs will be left empty. During that time span, businesses will need to hire a vast number of new employees.

These are not jobs that Americans can fill. There simply aren't enough young Americans entering the workforce to compensate for all of the older Americans that will be leaving the workforce. Immigration is the only conceivable means of filling those 79 million open jobs.

It's not just the future that is worrying. It's the present as well. Consider the story of Marshalltown, Iowa.

I grew up in Marshalltown, Iowa. I'll tell you, they're not running out of space in Marshalltown. From the historic courthouse at the center of town, a ten to fifteen minute drive in any direction will put you in a cornfield. Over the past decade or so, Marshalltown has seen an influx of Mexicans "” many from a single village, Villachuato "” who came to work at the Swift meatpacking plant, or in the fields in the summer. This has caused a bit of friction in a middle-class town with a largely German and Scandinavian heritage "” but just a bit. In fact, many small Midwestern towns like Marshalltown have been fighting for decades to hold on to a dwindling population. This is a real problem. Marshalltown businesses, for example, receive less than one application for each new job opening.

[Villachuatans] account for about half of the 1,900 employees at the largest employer in Marshalltown, a Swift & Co. meatpacking plant that also generates 1,200 additional jobs at related companies. Mexicans also have opened several new businesses in town, and their children have propped up sagging enrollment in Marshalltown schools. Not surprisingly, Mayor Harthun was eager to learn more about them "” in part, because he wanted them to stay. "I was being self-serving," he admits. "We need people."

Nor is Marshalltown the only place in the nation with these problems. Consider North Carolina:

In North Carolina, the immigrant population has nearly tripled since 1990, the biggest increase of any state in the nation, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan group in Washington. By far the biggest group of new immigrants in the state is illegal Mexicans.

Stephen P. Gennett, president of the Carolinas chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, which represents commercial builders, said Mexican immigrants filled an important gap in the labor market.

"We have a problem here: a people shortage," Mr. Gennett said. "In the 90's, we began to feel the stress of an inadequate work force," he said. "The Hispanics have been filling those jobs."

As I've been reading about immigration the last several weeks, I have seen this statement echoed in many articles. All around the nation are cities and towns that have a shortage of workers. Often, Mexicans are filling that shortage. If we try to hold down the number of immigrants moving across the border, we will do real economic harm to many communities across the United States. (As well as physical harm. Cracking down on illegal immigrants in the Northwest would leave many areas vulnerable to forest fires during the coming year.)

These are facts that our current immigration laws do not recognize. Indeed, the more that I think about our immigration laws, the more socialist they seem. The theory behind socialism and fascism was that the government could do a better job of planning the nation's economy than the free market could.

Our immigration laws reflect that theory. We have a complicated system of visas and quotas. Congress has established limits on the number of immigrants that can enter in each year, along with limits on how many people from each profession will be allowed to immigrate each year. In it's infinite wisdom, Congress decides how many lawyers, doctors, programmers, engineers, teachers, and "unskilled workers" will be allowed to immigrate each year. The goal is to have a well-planned immigration system that will give us highly skilled (highly taxable) workers that will not need to use our social services.

Unfortunately, Congress's infinite wisdom is usually anything but. Instead of a well-planned economy, we have a system where many businesses wage a constant battle to hire new employees and keep the employees that they already have. If their needs exceed what the government quotas allow for, the business is simply out of luck and will have to struggle along the best that they can.

The current treatment of Mexican immigrants typifies this insanity.

The United States offers 5,000 permanent visas worldwide each year for unskilled laborers. Last year, two of them went to Mexicans. In the same year, about 500,000 unskilled Mexican workers crossed the border illegally, researchers estimate, and most of them found jobs.

"We have a neighboring country with a population of 105 million that is our third-largest trading partner, and it has the same visa allocation as Botswana or Nepal," said Douglas S. Massey, a sociology professor at Princeton.

As Mexican immigration has accelerated, the United States has cut back on the permanent-resident visas available to unskilled Mexicans and shifted the system progressively away from an emphasis on labor, to favor immigrants with family ties to American citizens or legal residents, or who have highly specialized job skills.

In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement unleashed a surge of cross-border trade and travel, but at the same time the United States initiated the first in a series of measures to reinforce the border with Mexico to block the passage of illegal workers.

Businesses and workers are both sending clear signals that Mexican labor is in great demand. Rather than accomodating this demand and supplying the needs of the American economy, the government has been working in opposition to the demand. In fact, the greater the demand for foreign labor, the more the Federal government works to restrict that labor. This is centralized planning on a grand and unsustainable scale.

Earlier, Jenna asked how I would change our immigration laws. My answer is simple. I would make our laws better reflect the law of supply and demand. No limits, no quotas, and no complicated immigration categories. People would be free to move the United States (as long as they passed a criminal background check), regardless of socio-economic status, job skills, or education.

We need not worry that the supply of immigrants would outpace the supply of jobs. As the U.S. labor market became saturated, potential immigrants would hear from existing immigrants that work was becoming scarce. Once that happens, the flow of immigration will slow down. All of this will occur without government intervention or direciton. Indeed, this is how everything else in our economy from the supply of shoes to the suppy of medical equipment already works. The government is not involved in determining the "correct" levels of production for consumer goods and need not be involved in determining the "correct" amount of labor for the economy.

That leaves only the question of how to handle the 11-20 million people that have already immigrated illegally. I'm going to throw the question back to Jenna. How would you handle the illegals already here? Are you opposed to amnesty? If so, how do you define amnesty? Do you advocate mass deportations or do you have another plan?

Finally, I know I've put forward a lot of economic arguments and statistics. Feel free to postpone the amnesty question for a few days if you have followup questions or comments about the economic side of immigration.

This entry was tagged. Immigration Policy