Immigration

How it's affecting us

Roger Conner is one of the foremost apostles of this view.

Conner is a compact, sandy-haired lawyer, thirty-five years old, with a puckishly all-American look. Like many other lobbyists in Washington, he seems to be struggling to resist grabbing his listeners by the lapels so as to be sure they'll hear all he has to say. In the past, he channeled his enthusiasm into the environmental movement, but, he says, he came to feel that immigration was the biggest environmental question of all. For the past four years, as executive director of and chief spokesman for FAIR, he has been asking Americans to re-examine their assumptions about immigration.

Conner is exasperated by the notion that you can understand the effects of immigration by looking at the immigrants. "They are the last people you'd want to talk with," he said this spring. "Of course it's been good for them. Especially for the first ten years, they will work very hard. But what no one ever does, when they're out talking with the aliens and hearing their success stories, is talk to the people who are paying the price."

Conner admits that most people may profit from immigration. The immigrants themselves do, and so do those Americans who don't compete with immigrant labor and therefore are free to enjoy its blessings. The benefits include fresher food (picked by immigrant field hands, instead of by machine), more pliant domestic service (provided by Mexican maids), smaller bills in restaurants (with Salvadorans in the kitchen), and lower prices for new houses (because of lower pay for the construction crew).

Whom does that leave out? In Conner's view, those who pay the price are the black teenagers, the white working-class fathers, the ambitious children of maids and janitors, who are just as eager as any Vietnamese or Mexican to move up the ladder but who find that the rungs have been knocked out. This is a disaster for them but not, Conner says, for the classes that make the laws and run the businesses.

"If the illegal aliens were flooding into the legal, medical, educational, and business occupations of this country, this problem would have received national attention at the highest level and it would have been solved," the labor economist Vernon Briggs, of Cornell University, has written. Lawrence Fuchs says that according to public-opinion polls the college-educated are the only group in favor of more immigration.

The economic argument against immigration is particularly troublesome for liberals. It pits the rest of the world's poor against the two American groups thought to have the most to lose from increased immigration: unionized labor, which says its wage levels would be depressed, and young, unskilled blacks, who would be nudged out of place for entry-level jobs.

At this point, it is important to emphasize the distinction, not always clearly stated, between legal and illegal immigration. If one were searching for the pure immigrant spirit, the place to look would be among the illegals, for every one of them has overcome some obstacle in order to be here. But because they cannot compete fully in the aboveboard economy (they have no legal redress if underpaid or mistreated; they have difficulty getting loans or rising into the white-collar world), their climb up the occupational ladder ends early. More important, from Conner's perspective, they put unfair pressure on the American citizens competing for similar jobs. A man outside the law will accept working conditions a citizen would not—and should not. Once the illegal immigrant has the job, the citizen must choose between accepting similar conditions or going without work.

What kind of work do the illegals perform? According to some academic theory, and to the folk wisdom of the Southwest, immigrants do the jobs that Americans "won't" do. Michael Piore, an economist from MIT, has developed a model of a "dual" labor market: some jobs are so dirty, so onerous, so poorly paid, that if immigrants were not there to take them, the jobs would not exist. Therefore, the immigrants who are filling them have not really displaced anyone else.

"People say, 'Why aren't blacks like the Haitians?"' says T. Willard Fair, the president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, where Haitians now hold many of the maid and bellman jobs in which blacks once got their start. "'Why don't they want to work?' The Haitians are behaving the way we did thirty years ago. We would work for anything, take any abuse in the workplace."

To most of those directly involved in the industries where illegal immigrants concentrate, it seems obvious that no one else is lining up for the jobs. Last December, Merle Linda Wolin, of The Wall Street Journal, went to see a number of businesses where illegal immigrants had been rounded up during the spring of 1982 in Project Jobs, a short-lived sweep against employed illegal immigrants.

At a furniture factory in Santa Ana, California, on a railroad-construction gang in Texas, in a food-processing plant in Chicago, and at other sites of hard work, Wolin found that American citizens had in fact turned up for the jobs when the immigrants were gone—but soon afterward, they had quit. The pay was too bad; unemployment compensation was, by comparison, an attractive deal. Former truck drivers and carpenters found it humiliating to sweep parking lots or to keep up with a racing assembly line. By the time the *Journal's* reporter arrived, six months after Project Jobs, the plants were again full of illegal aliens. A team of researchers, headed by Wayne Cornelius, the director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego, found a similar pattern in California. "The attitude of many young people is that this is the dirty work of society," Cornelius has said, "and that people born, brought up and educated in the U. S. shouldn't have to do it."

What I learned on my tours over the same territory supported Cornelius's point. At a packing house in San Antonio, for example, men grunted as they hauled sides of meat from trucks into refrigerators. They disappeared as I, an Anglo in a rented car, drove up; Project Jobs had struck here. The beefy, red-haired foreman said that he'd be "happy" to have citizens in his work force if he could get them. Of course, he had "no idea" whether there were any illegal immigrants there. "It's against the law to ask." This is the convenient fiction that permits many employers to hire an illegal work force and pretend they haven't.

The agricultural industry in California, Texas, and Florida depends more heavily on illegal labor than any other industry does, and the growers have a more fully developed self-justifying rationale. Many protect themselves by saying they don't know who works for them, since the hiring is done by crew chiefs, acting as "independent agents." In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, "independent" contracting means that people cross the river between 4 and 6 A.M. and stand near the bridges in Brownsville and Progreso, waiting for crew chiefs to drive up and hire truckloads of workers for the day. In the inland reaches of Texas and other large agricultural states, commuter labor is not so feasible, and resident camps of illegal immigrants are an open secret. Growers say they have no alternative: they need Mexicans (or, in Florida, Haitians) to work the fields, because no one else would stick with the job. Americans can get food stamps and live like kings on welfare, I was told by orange growers in the Rio Grande Valley; but the Mexicans are grateful for the work. They are even grateful for the piece-rate wages—40 cents for a bushel of cucumbers, 35 cents for a sack of oranges—that usually work out to well under the minimum wage.

Even Alfred Giugni, whose job is preventing illegal immigration, says the growers may have a point. Giugni, a gigantic, mirthful man of mixed Italian and Hawaiian parentage, is the district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in El Paso. "In the 1950s, the people picking strawberries in Oregon were high school and college students," he says. "Now they're Vietnamese and illegal Hispanics. The employers like it, because they will work harder. Your high school student will work long enough to earn as much money as he wants, and then he'll quit."

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In