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Archived: Immigration Dilemma Not Going Away

Makes me yawn;
Long as someone,
Mows my lawn.

Illegal immigration, fueled by desperation back home, is common and risky the world over. Senegalese and Nigerians die in open boats heading for the Canary Islands. Haitians do the same en route to Puerto Rico. Mauritanians likewise perish aiming for Italy. And it’s no picnic even when they arrive safely. Abuse and death await Tajiks in Russia, Zimbabweans in South Africa, and Pakistanis in London.

Rewards, however, are alluring. While citizens in receiving countries may respond brutally to foreign competitors angling for their jobs, employers love them. There is nothing like cheap, vulnerable labor to increase profits. Thus, sweatshop and plantation owners everywhere become natural allies of human rights activists in seeking amnesty for the undocumented.

If this sounds to you a lot like the United States, you win. We’re little different from the rest of the world in this age-old dilemma, and in some ways we’re worse. Our own trade policies with Central America foist on those sad lands cheap subsidized American agribusiness corn. This has put their farmers out of business and forced them to sneak up here under cover of darkness.

Here they generally slip across our woefully insecure border, and if caught, find themselves immersed in our likewise woefully understaffed immigration system. There they mix with hundreds of thousands of other immigrants, legitimate and otherwise, who have become illegal because the government was too slow in processing their claims.

What a mess! The president has promised more staff to reduce the backlog, but we’ll see about that. He has a few other competing priorities on his plate too. Worse luck, he has already forsaken his campaign pledge to revisit NAFTA and like agreements, so it seems those workers from the south, whom we have already impoverished back home, are likely to keep flooding our borders. And big employers, from Microsoft to Smithfield, are forever pressing Congress and the White House for more permits to import foreign labor. The job of that labor is to perform work that “Americans won’t do!” (unless paid a decent wage).

The most popular solution to this quandary, if only marginally effective, is to build a new fence. The latest version, soon underway, will be “virtual.” It features towers, sensors, and cameras and, we hope, agents to go out and collar those malefactors who get sensed. We hope it works better than the real fences, gates, patrol plane, and cops that we’ve used up to now. Of course, those busy agents are also looking for drugs, stopping to detain plain old folk only when they have time. In any case, good fences, as we know, make good neighbors. Let’s hope this one is a beaut.

Meanwhile we need inspectors. Lots of inspectors. And higher minimum wages for our nation’s lousy jobs. The reason Americans won’t work at millions of those jobs is because they don’t pay a living wage and are needlessly filthy and dangerous. Meatpacking, for example, used to be (messy) middle class work, until the plants moved from the cities and got rid of the unions. Now we enjoy cheap meat built on the suffering of immigrants and the erosion of the environment. Crop work too, where labor isn’t even covered by the minimum wage, needs upgrading.

But aside from the often ill-treated immigrants themselves, the real sufferers in this drama are the low-paid or unemployed American non-union workers who get displaced. The press (which makes its money from employers) shows little regard for the angry unemployed, often demonizing them as “nativists,” bigots and the like.

True there are plenty of nativists around, but you don’t have to be one of them to resent losing your job to someone who is in the country illegally or through politics. This is true whether you’re a software engineer dumped for a cheaper Indian model, or an orange picker booted out for a Mexican.

Luckily, the recession has now softened immigration pressure for a few minutes, so we ought to be using that respite to get our fences, bureaucracies and trade policies in order before the next rush.

Columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. Distributed by Minutemanmedia.org.