The new House and Senate bills would both increase fines for employers. The Senate bill would require the adoption of an electronic-verification system for new workers within eighteen months; the House would give employers six years. It remains to be seen whether this would discourage the hiring of illegals—or whether employer greed and immigrant ingenuity would triumph over the electronic ID system as thoroughly as it has over the paper system. Both bills would waste billions on fences and electronic detection systems that would be a bonanza for connected defense contractors but would only move the stream of immigration to more dangerous places along the border, adding to the number of human beings who die of dehydration and snake bites crossing the desert every year.
The people who benefit from illegal immigration would lose out under a rigorous enforcement regime. Sweatshop manufacturers, home builders, fruit growers, the hotel and restaurant industry, wealthy couples hiring domestics who now employ illegals would all have to raise wages to attract U.S. citizens to take their jobs. At a certain wage, Americans priced out of the labor market—notably Mexican-Americans and African-Americans—would enter the market. Prices would rise, but the competitive nature of these industries would limit how much of the new labor costs companies could pass along to consumers. According to Philip Martin, Professor of Agricultural Economics at U.C. Davis, a forty percent wage increase for farm laborers would increase the cost of a 6 cent pound of apples to 7.5 cents and cost the average family only $10 more a year.
"If we had a government that respected our rights and provided us with good jobs, we would stay home," a Mexican preparing to illegally cross the U.S. border told James C. McKinley, Jr. of The New York Times last week. The Mexican political elite should heed his words and reform in order to avert revolution—for reform or revolution would be the two alternatives facing the ruling oligarchy in Mexico if the U.S. safety valve were shut off. And how might the elites enact reform? They could open their economy to more foreign investment; all manner of restrictions and bureaucratic encumbrances discourage such investment now. And they could break up the big estates and award the land to village and peasant cooperatives. They could also pull out of the NAFTA treaty with the United States, which is burying Mexican agriculture under a flood of subsidized American corn. And what would the results be? As Mexican agriculture revived, owners of valuable farmland in California, facing low-wage agricultural competition from Mexico, would sell out to developers. More housing would be built for the millions of Californians who need it. With the increase in supply, housing prices in coast markets would fall, offsetting the increase in labor costs entailed by hiring U.S. citizens to build houses. U.S. farm subsidies would plummet, saving billions in counterproductive outlays. Fertile Mexico and South America would supply most of our food needs. It takes an act of faith to imagine this scenario unfolding under either the Senate or House bills.
Nativists fear that immigration will lead to the "Mexicanization" of the United States, code for "Those damn greasers who wanna sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner' in Spanish!" But the Mexicanization we should fear is social—not racial or cultural. Mexico once played a fateful role in American history. "The United States will conquer Mexico," Emerson wrote in 1847 as U.S. armies converged on Mexico City, "but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us." And so it did. The territories seized from Mexico reopened the issue of slavery expansion that had been settled by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, setting the nation on a course toward civil war. Mexico won't divide us this time, but unless it is stopped, the Mexican "Reconquista" will confirm us on our course toward Mexican-like inequality.