Politics & Prose May 2006

Mexico Strikes Back

Unless it is stopped, the Mexican "Reconquista" could obliterate U.S. standards of fairness.
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The Senate immigration bill not only does next to nothing to prevent roughly 400,000 illegal immigrants from entering the workforce every year; under a guest-worker program, it invites another 200,000 job-seekers a year to join them, and it sets in motion a rolling amnesty for many of the 10 to 12 million illegals here now. How will fifty years of massive low-wage immigration change the country? A society already more unequal than at any time since the 1920s will grow more starkly unequal as a helot class of workers with no labor rights pushes down the wages of poorer American citizens—brown, black, and white. Already average wages are as much as $1,500 lower owing to immigration. Estimates of the net cost to the taxpayer of providing services to poor immigrants  run to as much as $22 billion annually—$3 billion in California alone.

Since 2000, 1.5 million Americans have dropped out of the labor force, with the fall-off steeper in states with heavy concentrations of immigrants. That figure gives the lie to claims that we have a shortage of workers. If labor force participation rates had remained constant, 1.4 million adult native citizens with high school diplomas and 450,000 high school dropouts would be employed today. Instead, they have been priced out of the labor market by the 1.6 million legal and illegal immigrants with only a high school education or lower who entered the workforce in those years. More immigration will price more native citizens out—and especially additions to the 5.8 million illegals holding American jobs now. A Center for Immigration Studies survey of 473 occupations found that fully 17 million less-lucky Americans work in jobs with a "high concentration of immigrants": construction laborers, dishwashers, janitors, painters. As Steven A. Camarota, the author of the report, points out, that figure shows that "It is simply incorrect to say that immigrants only do jobs natives don't want."

Anyone who cares about the life-chances of our most vulnerable countrymen and women must want to see illegal immigration be curtailed and guest-worker programs limited to highly-skilled guest workers. As experts have long argued, to end illegal immigration you've got to hire the personnel to enforce the laws against hiring illegal immigrants. If employers had to pay millions in fines, they would stop hiring illegals. Word would get back to Mexico: There are few jobs available in the U.S. Illegal immigration would not stop, but over time it would slow significantly.

There is a reason the laws are not enforced: lobbying—that is, campaign contributions—by industries that exploit illegal immigrants. The result is the transfer of those industries' estimated $11 to $22 billion annual net expenses onto the taxpayer. Under the Clinton Administration, 8,000 employers suspected of hiring illegals were investigated annually; under Bush, only 2,000.  In all of 2004, only three employers paid fines for hiring illegals. In 1998, when the INS subpoenaed the personnel records of all the meatpacking plants in Nebraska as part of an initiative known as “Operation Vanguard,” they quickly discovered 4,000 illegals. The meat lobby motivated Senator Chuck Hagel to raise hell with the INS. In the end, the official who thought up "Operation Vanguard" was persuaded to seek early retirement, and the INS stopped enforcing the law. In all of 2004, only three employers paid fines for hiring illegals.

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.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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