illegal immigration and worker’s rights
Will Wilkinson is among our best writers when it comes to the issue of illegal immigration. Today he writes, “But, in my experience, laying out clearly the immense benefits to the immigrants is extremely powerful. It highlights the needless misery caused by the heartless status quo.”
Whether he is right or not about the political salience of arguing for the rights of immigrants, I don’t know. I do believe that he is absolutely right that it is important that pro-immigrant activists not effectively endorse the exclusion of immigrant needs and rights from the conversation about immigration by only speaking about the issue in terms of what’s best for non-immigrants. A pro-immigrant argument that ignores immigrant need is bound only to contribute to immigrant marginalization. Understand that I believe that there are principled arguments for immigration restriction, but none of them endorse even implicitly that immigrant rights and needs make no difference.
It’s exactly because of immigrant rights and needs that I am opposed to illegal immigration.
Check this, and believe it: the suite of comprehensive rights, protections and empowerment for workers that grew from the efforts of the American labor movement of the early 20th century amount to one of the greatest achievements of western civilization. An entire nation of workers’ lives changed in less than a hundred years. Many American workers once earned terrible pay in squalid and dangerous conditions, with absolutely no consideration for long term health effects, and in a regime with no meaningful recourse against unfair termination or other illegitimate actions by employers (which were ubiquitous.) In a few short decades, we moved to a period where almost all American workers were capable of earning a decent wage, with legally enforced standards of cleanliness and safety and enforceable regulation on how much individual workers could be called on to work, how they had to be compensated for overtime and under what conditions they could be fairly fired. Added to this over the years were protections ensuring that black workers could not be fired by virtue of not being white, that women workers who could perform their function could not be fired by virtue of not being men, that Jewish workers could not be fired by virtue of not being Christian. In the breadth and depth of this comprehensive series of protections and rights, a vast swath of the American populace had their lives materially improved. This is the very definition of social progress.
And it only happened because of a demand, a demand made by workers, and fought for by many people at considerable sacrifice over a long period of time. Employers did not suddenly choose conscience over the profit motive but were forced through consistent organization and effort to adapt to a work environment much more conducive to worker protections and worker rights. The modern May Day celebration, if you weren’t aware, is a celebration of the American worker’s movement and its efforts to secure the eight-hour day. I will leave it for you to chew over what it says that no one in American cares about that celebration while people in Latin America and Europe do. Only people who have lived with the blessing of the protections that our workers enjoy could think to underestimate that blessing.
It is this reason, my great regard for the considerable achievements in worker rights and worker protection in America, that compels me to want to include currently illegal immigrants within them. I want as many people as possible to be able to enjoy America’s social goods. Which means that I want to let people in who want to come here and work here. It also means that those who come must play by our rules, they must obey American laws and rules about working and taxation. They cannot undermine American minimum wage law, they cannot work more hours than is legally proscribed, they cannot fail to pay into Social Security, they cannot undermine the American system which provides so much.
I reject both many principled arguments against illegal immigration and the rarer, troubling arguments that amount to appeals to nativism or tribalism. Yet I am also perpetually unable to understand advocates for illegal immigrants who speak as if there is some social good in millions of people coming to this country to be exploited for slave wages without the robust series of protections that make the American workforce so blessed. That these conditions are better than what they would be in Mexico or elsewhere is, I’m sure, true. But better is not good enough, not in a country that has staked so much and worked so hard to ensure that everyone who works enjoys minimums of compensation and safety. It is no victory for someone to come here and pick tomatoes for a dollar an hour. And it is only a dramatically lowered set of expectations for immigrants that could allow us to think that it is a victory.
Let them in, tax them, and let them participate in American abundance to whatever degree they are able.
Update: In the comments, North adds some additional thoughts that I endorse:
“-By allowing immigrants to come here and work illegally we not only undermine workers conditions here but also back in the native country. The phenomena of illegal immigration acts as a safety valve for ineffective, corrupt or inept governments. Their most disadvantaged migrate to “el norte” (eliminating potential protesters and dissatisfaction) and then send cash home to their loved ones (again buying more contentment and also giving the government a nice influx of foreign currency. Illegal immigration may well be a factor in the stagnation of the progress of some of the nations to the south of America.
-Illegal immigrants, by necessity, put a terrible burden on the charity of the safety net. Since we’re unwilling to let them die in the streets (to our great credit) or allow their children to become an uneducated underclass they pile additional burden onto those services along with all kinds of other community outreach done by the government.
My personal suggestion would be to set up a strong system to allow employers verify the eligability of employees to work in the country. That done we should offer a reward program where people illegally employed in the US can testify against their illegal employers and then earn for themselves maybe accelerated citizenship and perhaps a cash reward or maybe a scholarship as well scaling according to the size of the operation so exposed.”
Indeed. Enforcement of immigration law has to be centered on enforcement on employers. As long as there is a demand from our employers for illegal immigrant labor, people will immigrate illegally. Making it considerably easier for non-felon immigrants to come to our country is a big part, but it has to be balanced– and protected– by insisting that our businesses comply with existing law.