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Immigration's Elephant

There is an elephant in the middle of the immigration discussions -- a huge presence that is ignored by all. An inconvenient truth that is carefully not addressed: America needs an underclass.


Since its earliest days, the American economy has depended on cheap labor. Initially this was largely slaves in the south and indentured servants in the north. By the mid-nineteenth century it came to include large numbers of Chinese involved in railway construction, then freed blacks -- still oppressed in the South and underpaid in the North. Dangerous jobs in mining and manufacturing also depended on underpaid workers; many still do. Throughout the nation's history, immigrants provided a large pool of cheap labor. In the Land of Opportunity they were able to work themselves up into the middle class, the jobs they left behind filled by a continuing flow of new immigrants.

[NOTE: comments are welcomed and may be incorporated with reference in future revisions.]


Thus population growth enabled US economic growth, but this is becoming more and more problematical. Our land, water and open space resources are being increasingly stretched and do not have the spare capacity to meet potential crises, such as impacts global warming. Capacity growth in health and education resources is largely soaked up by population increases. The economy needs to shift from a growth oriented mode to a steady state mode, where company profits basically come from a steady supply of goods and services and not from continual company growth. Of course there will still be turnover as new products and services arise, old ones decline, production efficiencies are selectively introduced, services improve or degrade. Some individual companies will grow and others will shrink. But the economy as a whole will need to remain more or less steady.


As globalization is re-distributing jobs worldwide, US economic growth is stagnating along with the prospects for the American underclass. Large numbers of legal and illegal immigrants, initially in agriculture but now widespread in construction and service industries, can no longer expect to work themselves into the middle class. Without continual expansion, there is no room for them. Yet the economy cannot function now without them, even though with its increasingly lopsided distribution of wealth, it cannot pay them adequately either.


This is exploitation, and it is not new. When we were engaging Communism, "exploitation" became a dirty word, a discredited label used by demagogic totalitarians and dupes. Americans could recognize that some people were being paid low wages but it was taboo to refer to them as being "exploited." Now, with the outrageously inflated salaries of many executives and the massive profits of some major corporations, everyday workers can maintain a reasonable standard of living only thanks to an underclass which is even worse off: hard labor, woefully inadequate wages, no health or retirement benefits, and miserable living conditions. This includes the millions of illegal immigrants and many unskilled workers who underpin our economy, not to mention many more millions abroad whose low wages provide Americans with cheap everyday goods. Exploitation is indeed embedded in the American economy. With 5% of the world population, the United States consumes 25% of its resources. Globalization is now levelling this playing field; it is a major challenge facing the nation.


It is regularly stated that illegal immigrants take jobs which Americans do not want. But what is usually glossed over is that Americans do not want these jobs because they are grossly underpaid. So long as the economy depends on a large number of jobs which do not provide a living wage, there can be no solution to the immigration problem. It is one thing for entry level jobs to provide lower wages, but when large numbers of essential jobs fail to provide a living wage there remains an unavoidable requirement for an exploited underclass. Although more Americans are willing to take the lower paid jobs they formerly avoided, immigrants find themselves blamed for taking such jobs even though these jobs still far outnumber the Americans willing to take them.

So it is not just a question of a minimum wages, but more broadly of wages which provide a comfortable life in exchange for hard work. At any moment there is only a finite amount of wealth to share. When an oversized portion goes to one small sector of the population, then there are only undersized portions left for all others. This is the biggest elephant in the debate. Without a more equitable wealth distribution, the middle class is under increasing pressure to just maintain its living standard. Cheap labor remains essential and so will a steady supply of low-paid immigrants.


Illegal immigration is not the problem, it is a symptom of a misaligned economy which needs to be re-structured so that necessary jobs provide a necessary recompense - living wages, health care, social security, and education. Ruben Navarette's comment that there are two signs on the US border -- KEEP OUT and HELP WANTED - is true. He ascribes it to hypocrisy, but it is deeper than that. It is inertia, an unwillingness to change fundamental approaches to economic stability, to re-orient from a growth economy to a more sustainable steady state economy.


The United States cannot be an island of prosperity in a world full of want. It is not only the attraction of Help Wanted which fuels illegal immigration, but also the pressure of economic misery at home. Mexico, for example, is the largest source of illegal immigrants. But Mexico is a nation blessed with natural resources, yet wealth is very poorly distributed. Millions live in poverty, so the United States has an obvious attraction, it is the safety valve for Mexican shortcomings, even though our own growth engine is slowing and a global recession is further dampening US prospects. The United States needs to pressure - and assist - Mexico in developing a more equitable society. This is not easy when the United States itself is becoming less and less equitable. But our own ideals call for us to set the example. And it is obviously not just Mexico. The United States is a safety valve for dozens of countries, both near and far. To stabilize the Untied States economy and address immigration pressures, we need to help stabilize the world. That is the major challenge of globalization; prosperity can no longer by geographically defined.


Immigration can not be resolved by tinkering. It brings up the issue of job structure and is slowly forcing the nation to recognize that we need a new economic model. Globalization is intensifying these issues and making the current job structure even less tenable than it had been. The growth model is not longer sustainable; a new economic model is imperative.


The current recession is forcing many illegal immigrants to return home, reducing the scope of the problem. As the global economy recovers, there is an opportunity to re-structure some of the basic elements of the US economy - and of the Mexican and other economies as well. The United States is the leading economy in the world and needs to set the example.

Comments (1)

Dr. Karl Kettler:

Correct. This is just another form of slavery! However it is also a deterent to technological progress because when one has cheap labor one tends to ignore innovation.Furthermore there is about 2.5 million in cheap labor rotting in our prisons, many long-term, that should be utilized. Also it is a myth that cheap labor is "cheap". They may be paid slave wages BUT they cost huge amounts in taxpayer funded public services such as free health care through E-rooms and free education for their children and increased police requirments since illegals generally do not pay income taxes on tens of $billions of income. Someone is benefiting from these illegals BUT it isn't the American taxpaying public.

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