Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What Immigration Problem?

Representative Artur Davis, a Democrat from Alabama and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, makes an important point about the current immigration debate. In a country with a relatively low unemployment rate, competition for jobs exacerbated by immigration is concentrated in the "low wage base." The low wage base is the bottom sector of the labor force, unskilled manual laborers. Rep. Davis, an African-American congressman from the South, points out that our low wage base is larger than it needs to be (although still not large enough or evenly distributed enough to fill, say, our migrant agricultural labor needs). Meanwhile we suffer from labor shortages in "higher" sectors of the labor force, those requiring technically trained workers. What is needed is more education, vocational and otherwise, for lower-income Americans. Someday we're going to understand what many other countries (notably the Asians) have long understood: that education is a public benefit as well as a private one.
Two more quick points about immigration. First, while it's true that the current situation (somewhere between 10 and 15 million people in the country with inadequate documentation) is no way to run things and ought to be reformed, it's not true that the problem of illegals has now somehow come to a crisis point for the nation's economy or security. The situation is nothing new, and in fact we need at least some millions of those workers to make up for unskilled labor shortages in agriculture, construction, services and other industries. What is happening right now is that we are in a contentious election cycle, one where the right has good reason to worry about the outcome. The immigration debate has been cranked up once again as a lightening-rod issue to galvanize the right-wing populist vote, much as the gay marriage issue is also brought to the fore not by gay rights liberals, but by their opponents.
Which brings me to the second point. We humans are territorial, defensive around strangers and worried to protect our families and property. It's easy to demagogue an issue like immigration, much as the Republicans demagogue the "terrorism" issue. We are a country of 300 million people with an unemployment rate hovering around four to six percent (six percent we consider bad). In other moods, conservatives are quick to point out that the economy is doing well. So I ask again: what immigration problem?

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