Monday, March 19, 2007

The Brown Conundrum

There appears to be a fair amount of hostility in the south towards Hispanic immigrants. In many ways Hispanic has become synonymous with Mexican illegal immigrant. The issue of illegal Hispanic immigration has resurrected some very traditional American values – racism, intolerance and damning disdain for other people. The anger and scorn towards Hispanic immigrants is centered among conservatives hoping to conserve an older version of America where some of their traditional values were more relevant. In attempts to not be so blatantly ethnocentric, the anti-immigrant corps provide a set of arguments against illegal immigrants that center around the fundamental illegality of their presence and the idea that they are stealing jobs from American workers and pushing down the wage scale. Aside from the thinly veiled racist arguments, there is the moral and practical conundrum.

Illegal immigrant workers do have an impact on the low skilled labor market. The grand claim that they are stealing jobs from American workers, however, is less clear. There is nothing new to the idea that the illegal immigrant workforce has a very limited impact on the labor market for which there is domestic competition. American born workers are not interested in those kinds of jobs – picking fruit in the Central Valley of California, cleaning toilets and bedrooms in hotels, cutting the heads off chickens, cleaning up trash and dumping it in the back of restaurants. I would speculate that none of the ultra-patriots who argue that the country ought to purge itself of these immigrant workers would ever themselves or allow their children to perform those functions for the society.

Another claim regarding illegal immigrant workers is that they are taking advantage of “the system.” The argument goes that they do not pay taxes but they want to partake of the public trust; they want public education for their children and public health services when they are sick. In essence, they want to take without giving. This argument is incomplete. The hole in this argument is that we can see the work that they do and the contributions that they make. The claim that they are not contributing to the society is undermined by the fact that everyone can literally see, touch and benefit from the work that they do. The stereotypes of Hispanics even corroborate their disciplined and responsible work ethic. It would be quite a different story if the majority of illegal immigrants were coming into the country and loafing and still expecting public goods.

Paying taxes is not the only way to contribute to the system. Indeed, it may be the most difficult way to contribute if you are here and working illegally. In Atlanta, all of the building construction, all of the roofing and mason work and landscaping and all of the restaurant table busing and kitchen work is done by Hispanic people. Many of these workers are here illegally. Their work; however, provides the physical structure and service base for the carefree gentry that is so viciously opposing their presence. In some ways the argument holds in reverse, the anti-immigrant set wants the benefits of immigrant labor without having them reside in the country. They would like the United States to be one large gated community where the workers come in 11 million deep on a big pickup truck in the morning, do the menial work, and then get out by dusk.

Having said that, there are problems with unchecked illegal immigration. The cities and states that are burdened with the problem simply cannot continue to support an unending stream of new people. Hospitals and schools, for example, are being forced into a more and more difficult moral conundrum. Those services that are supported by the public trust cannot support people who do not contribute to their upkeep. Building the buildings and taking care of the doctors’ children is ultimately insufficient.

I do not know what fraction of illegal immigrants that work, pay taxes. I would guess not many. Indeed there is little incentive to do so. If they pay their taxes now, some of their own money might be going to build the wall to keep others like themselves out. A conundrum if ever there was one. Fundamentally, an unending flow of people that is not balanced by an increasing tax stream stretches the capacity of a society to sustain itself beyond its social and structural limits. Ultimately, the problem boxes sympathetic morality into a practical corner.



lisa said...

... so what's the answer? can we ever hope to come to some sort of balance on this issue? will temporary work visas and a revolving door with a bouncer controlling the flow into the country ("nah, you can't get in yet, you gotta wait until one comes out") ever be a practical solution? will it still be worth it to construction, food service, and hospitality industries to employ immigrant workers if they now have to report their existence and pay their share to social security and the like? give us some answers young jedi!

luvlife0702 said...

re: taxes...
these folks pay sales tax and proportionately more than wealthier folks as sales tax is regressive in its nature. they buy lottery tickets. they pay rent (and therefore contribute to the payment of property taxes).

re: illegal immigration
our illegal immigration is far from 'unchecked' given a wall, trucks, light, motion sensors etc and the thousands of folks we got working ports of entry and southern (and northern) borders to keep people out.

every country has illegal immigration and undocumented immigrants. it's a huge deal in places like uganda, south africa, belize, australia, india, dubai, egypt etc. as long as there is economic disparity, war and political upheaval anywhere in the world there will be illegal immigration. we can stem the tide, reduce numbers (which we have done significantly in the past decade) but we just have to live with it.

interestingly there was an article on the front page of a seattle newspaper today about the looming shortage of fruit pickers (two years ago they got workers from asia to cover for the dwindling supply of undocumented immigrants). due to the crackdown at the border fruit was left unpicked last year. and there are 8,000 less migrant children in Washington schools this year from last.

folks have been getting up and walking, swimming and boating their way to 'greener' pastures since we first crawled out of caves on our forearms. it aint about to stop now just because we can't get a visa.