The Humanitarian Case for Immigration

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Austin Bramwell

I am a freelance opinion-monger living in New York City.

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  1. “First, the costs of immigration — mostly in the form of depressed wages — are disproportionately born by the working class. “

    Is this an accurate statement? Thinking abou thte jobs that most illegals do, landscaping, roofing, framing… are those positions sought after by the working class and no work to be found? Is it a question of Latinos being hired over Americans because they work for less or because they work better or because there are no other applicants?

    What’s hurting the ‘working class’ more than anything else is the demise of manufacturing. This is not due to illegal labor though. It’s due to them competing with foreign workers for a finite amount of jobs worldwide.Report

    • Avatar Sam M in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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      @Mike at The Big Stick,

      “Thinking abou thte jobs that most illegals do, landscaping, roofing, framing… are those positions sought after by the working class and no work to be found?”

      Well, one reason nobody seeks them is that they don’t pay well. Which is directly related to the supply of labor. Which is directly related to the level of low-skill immigration.

      “What’s hurting the ‘working class’ more than anything else is the demise of manufacturing.”

      But there are two sides to this coin. One way manufacturing interests take advantage of low global wages is to move factories to Mexico and China. Another way is to move Mexican and Chinese workers to the United States.

      I understand that, generally, when officials hammer, say, a meat packing plant for hiring illegal immigrants, they stop hiring illegal immigrants and hire locals. BUt these are jobs Americans won’t do… until they increase the wages. Which they do. Then Americans agree to do those jobs.

      I am a squish on immigration, mostly. But I think it’s fairly obvious, or at least pretty intuitive, that importing tens of millions of low-skilled labor is going to increase the supply of low skilled laborers. And when you increase the supply of something, it’s price goes down.Report

      • Avatar Mike at The Big Stick in reply to Sam M
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        @Sam M, “I understand that, generally, when officials hammer, say, a meat packing plant for hiring illegal immigrants, they stop hiring illegal immigrants and hire locals. BUt these are jobs Americans won’t do… until they increase the wages.”

        Assuming the AMericans that want those jobs (at a higher pay rate) are unemployed I am wholly unsympathetic to them if they simply refuse to do the job unless paid more. Get a job, agitate for higher wages, or improve your skillset and move on. Passing on paying jobs, no matter how low the pay, is a luxury people in the third world don’t have…which also ultimately explains why they may be more desirable workers.Report

        • Avatar Sam M in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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          @Mike at The Big Stick,

          I am not sure any of these assumptions hold. Some people, particularly women, might exit the job market entirely given a set of options that maxes out at $4.15 an hour. You can’t make enough to buy healthcare.

          It’s also important to note that these jobs do not operate in a vaccuum. When the slaughterhouse starts to pay more than waiting tables, a few waiters switch jobs, putting pressure on restaurants to raise wages, etc. So even workers who are currently employed at the bottom end of the spectrum benefit. Why? Because when the supply of anything decreases, its price goes up.

          Seems pretty clear to me that it wouldn’t just be lazy welfare slobs that would benefit if we staunched the tidal wave of low-wage competition. Hard-working people who fall into the low-wage category would also benefit. Unless you can think of a way that employers would want and be able to make sure only the slobs enjoy the benefits of reduced labor supply.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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          @Mike at The Big Stick, Mike you’re leaving out the work hazards and sub minimum wage pay that illegal employers are foisting on their employees. Not to mention the fact that the illegal employers are, if anything, much worse lawbreakers than the illegals they hire. Why so little sympathy for illegal immigrants but such broad lattitude for their corporate exploiters?Report

        • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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          @Mike at The Big Stick,

          Get a job, agitate for higher wages,

          Employers would have no reason to comply. If you’ve already demonstrated a willingness to work for $8/hr, they’ve got no reason to upgrade you to $10.Report

    • Avatar Simon K in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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      @Mike at The Big Stick, I think this class-based argument is actually much weaker than it seems on its face. Downward pressure on wages from immigration is focussed on a few fields precisely because many of the immigrants being employed are illegal, so they have to work for employers who can evade investigation – construction, catering and agriculture mostly. If the immigrants could work legally they’d be able to use the skills that many of them do in fact have, and the pressure on wages would be more evenly spread.

      Secondly, while the working class may still be more exposed to downward pressure on wages, people with lower incomes are also disproportionately the beneficiaries of falling prices, since they tend to consume cheaper goods.Report

      • Avatar Sam M in reply to Simon K
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        says:

        @Simon K,

        “people with lower incomes are also disproportionately the beneficiaries of falling prices, since they tend to consume cheaper goods.”

        I think this is wrong. Rich people consume a lot more of most things, including cheap things. For instance, whose do you figure goes through more plastic forks every year, Warren Buffett or some guy from the trailer park? I am assuming Warren Buffet. Moreover, high-end goods also become far cheaper in a global economy. Cadillac manages to lower its sticker price as much as, if not more than, Hyundai, by buying on the global market.Report

        • Avatar Simon K in reply to Sam M
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          @Sam M, Okay, I wasn’t clear enough, so lets flesh out the argument. Take two people. The first guy lives in a trailer park, drives a broken down Geo Metro and works various casual jobs. Every month he buys a certain basket of goods – fuel for his car, rent for the trailer, and bulk frozen food, but there are still lots of things he needs – the car could use some repairs, the trailer needs painting and he’s not been out with his buddies for a while because he can’t afford it. The second guy has six mansions and a fleet of classic cars. Every month he spends the GDP of a small African country on caviar, gold plated flatware, new cars, wages for his staff, and so on. There really isn’t much he needs, and he tends to forget which house he left the last priceless artwork he purchased in.

          Now lets say prices falls because of immigrant labour. To be vaguely realistic, lets say the price of frozen chicken drops because the chicken factories are employing even more illegal immigrants. Now of course our rich guy doesn’t eat much frozen chicken – he personally only eats freshly slaughtered heritage Cornish game hen flown in directly from his personal farm – but he does buy some to feed to the staff. The net impact on his expenditure of the price drop is quite large – several thousand dollars – but this is an amount of money he could easily loose behind the sofa. As it happens he spends a years worth of savings on a single piece of exquisite Sushi during a day-trip to Japan which he barely tasted because he was’t feeling so great that day.

          Trailer park guy on the other hand eats a fair bit of frozen ground chicken. He definitely notices the drop in price and in fact goes so far as to eat more frozen chicken and less beef as a consequence. He saves about fifty bucks a month as a consequence, but this is enough for him to go out once a week with his buddies and in a couple of months he’ll be able to repaint the trailer.

          I’m getting carried away with the stories here, but I’m trying to make a basic point – yes, the rich save more in absolute terms when prices fall, but in proportionate terms the relative impact on the welfare of the poor is much bigger. Fundamentally being able to afford one more piece of overpriced sushi is a far smaller contribution to your wellbeing that being able to go out with your friends and paint your home, even if it is much more expensive.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Simon K
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        @Simon K, notably, these same arguments are in play when it comes to the minimum wage hikes. Most people’s concerns are different, though. The conservatives are suddenly worried about the effect that rising prices will have on the poor and liberals are confident that it’ll all work out in the end.

        I figure that we can either absorb higher costs or we cannot. If we can, then that’s not a reason not to raise the minimum wage or to keep the illegals out. If we can’t, we should be kinda thanking the illegals for coming and we should be wary of raising the minimum wage.Report

    • Avatar Tyler in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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      @Mike at The Big Stick,

      And wouldn’t a more accurate statement be “business exploitation of immigration depresses wages”

      It seems to me that accepting that business should be allowed to make money in this way is folly. I know it’s sort of the predominant thinking in America that whatever makes more money is 1) natural and 2) moral. Just because an immigrant lives relatively better than they would at home doesn’t mean that its right to exploit that.Report

  2. Avatar Jason Kuznicki
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    I wrote a fairly negative review of Clark’s book (pdf). I don’t think his empirical foundation holds up.Report

    • Avatar Austin Bramwell in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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      @Jason Kuznicki, Thanks Jason. I plant to print out your review and give it some thought… CATO certainly does emphasize the importance of institutions, to put it mildly, so your hostility is not surprising. The alternative explanation that Clark suggests is rather explosively un-PC, as you seem to have understood.Report

  3. Avatar Rufus
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    Can I make one (really intensely pedantic) request: Can we stop calling it the Third World, given that the Second World is no more?Report

  4. Avatar North
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    I have an objection. Would it not be accurate to say that immigration acts as a drain on third world countries? Their citizens who would normally be most motivated to agitate for reform and improvement in their home country are instead drained via immigration into first world countries relieving pressure on host governments to reform. Sort of a brain drain?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to North
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      @North, who would be in charge of picking and choosing which countries need what kind of workers?

      Would we take roofers from Mexico but not java developers?

      Or java developers but not roofers?Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Jaybird
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        @Jaybird, Jay, I’m relatively meh about immigration one way or another. That said I’m completely missing your point. I’m not proposing some international workers migration board. I’m pointing out merely that by allowing illegal unlimited immigration first world countries probably keep third world countries poor by skimming off their most active.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to North
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          @North, dude, don’t get me wrong. I’m exploring with you.

          Would it be fair to make an analogy like this:

          Would it be theoretically unfair to take the best students out of Marion Barry High School and put them in Ethan Allan High School? Specifically, would it be unfair to MBHS?

          That’s the analogy that makes the most sense to me. I don’t see how MBHS has any claim to the best students… and I don’t see how the good that would come to MBHS due to the best students going there would be better than the good that would come out from those students going to EAHS.

          And that’s not even getting into the good that accrues to the student individuals themselves.

          It seems odd to say that a third world country has a “right” to a worker.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to North
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      @North, Hrm. I wonder if anyone knows of any good studies on how emigration from, say, Poland in the early 1900s affected the Polish nationalist movement, or how Cuban emigration has impacted reformers in Cuba during the Castro era?

      I’d be really curious to see the findings of such a study, and it seems like somebody, somewhere must have done something along those lines.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill in reply to North
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      @North, had a conversation with someone a while back who used that line of reasoning as a reason that we should keep the foreigners out. I didn’t say so, but the thought that crossed my mind was that they had moved from a small town to the big city and wondered on what basis that could be considered different.Report

    • Avatar Lyle in reply to North
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      @North, In particular immigration tends to get the most motivated people to move. It takes a lot to change countries. So the US has a more motivated population due to immigration, more willing to work for a better life for their children (see the history of the 19th century immigrants).Report

    • Avatar Austin Bramwell in reply to North
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      @North, North – I think this is an important point. I believe that immigration is certainly used by elites in Third World country to avoid having to address problems in their countries. This mitigates somewhat the overall advantages to Third Worlders of immigration. Probably not enough, however, to overwhelm the benefits.Report

  5. Avatar Rufus
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    As for Clark’s thesis, yes, the English had great institutions and values. But the guns didn’t hurt.Report

  6. Avatar dexter45
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    I agree whole heartedly with Mr. Bramwell, but instead of letting illegal roofers flood the market and depress wages for the people who actually produce, I think we should flood the market with idiot bloggers who think that working for less than enough to live off of is the best way to do things.Report

  7. Avatar Mike Farmer
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    The humanitarian case for immigrants is best made by support for a free market and rapid economic growth. There is so much needless poverty in world it’s amazing to consider it exist mainly because of bad economic ideas or tyranny.Report

  8. Avatar Tom
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    says:

    Regarding the economics of illegal immigration much of the work illegal immigrants do is for the rich – cleaning hotels where the rich stay, buildings where the rich work, landscaping of rich people properties, housecleaning for rich people, etc. And yet they most certainly live in very poor communities and use the schools and hospitals of poor legal residents. Therfore, the poor legal citizens are subsidizing the rich legal citizens at the same time they are having their wages depressed by the illegal immigrants. Plus, one bad apple often spoils the lot and putting the children of millions of illegal immigrants in with the children of legal citizens is definitely going to cause at least some of them to go down the wrong path.

    Also, jobs build character. I grew up with plenty of other teenagers
    who worked on farms, did painting, or did lanscaping jobs.
    Now all these jobs are given to illegals while American teenagers
    work more and more at fast food restaurants or padding their resumes
    with PC “activities” to improve their chances of getting into college. These things are not character building in any real sense.

    Further, legal immigration from China, India, and other third world
    places is a huge negative for America because they don’t embrace American values. For instance, if a guy beats up his girlfriend severely at say a gas station where a a white teenager working he will probably get on his cell phone and call the cops. But, what if it’s a guy from the third-world working at this gas station? Whether they are illegal or legal they are probably going to say a much greater proportion of the time “it’s his right as a man to beat his woman.” Millions and millions of incidents like that since the 1965 Immigration Act was passed have degraded our culture. Everytime you see the nice kindly immigrant from Timbuktu working at the gas station or deli know that they almost certainly never reported crimes a typical citizen would. We need to deport all illegal immigrants,
    end the H-1B Visa program, and repeal the 1965 Immigration Act.
    Of course many white people project on immigrants all their hopes and
    dreams about immigration just as they projected these hopes and dreams on Obama before they voted for him. Every black guy from Africa they work with is their own personal Madela. Hopefully, we go back to National Origins Immigrations policies soon.Report

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