May 2006 - Solving Illegal Immigration in America
I am a bit more of an open-border-guy than the next person. I would prefer legal immigration, but I would grant legal immigrant status to almost anyone who had a job in the US. And if you're smart I'd let you in even without a job - you'll find some way to make a buck. I've heard Tom Friedman call it "a tall wall with a huge door in it."
Over the last few weeks I've had a chats with some more "kick 'em out" folks. The argument was that illegal immigrants are a drain on our social services, paid for with our taxes. "They don't have jobs. They use our social services and pay nothing" is one line of thinking. "Build a wall and then kick 'em out," is the general sentiment.
I counter that these people do have jobs. These people swim the Rio Grande or walk for days over open dessert or smuggle themselves over here suffocating inside sealed small trucks. They are mostly males, leaving families back in Mexico. They come here to earn money and send a part of it back home. Some of them risk going back to visit their families every few years and then smuggle themselves across the border again. They stand outside Home Depot. They shuffle in the background at restaurants picking up dirty dishes. They pick strawberries in fields. These people want to work; I don't think that's the issue at all. These people are work-a-holics.
Well then, it's been said that if they do have jobs then they don't pay taxes. Don't pay taxes? They certainly pay sales tax. And how do you avoid gasoline tax? I could agree that they don't pay much in taxes because they don't make much. What about income taxes? They are illegal and their wages are not reported so they don't pay income tax. Income tax? On those small salaries? I don't think we're missing much.
But!, if you are illegal then your employer does not make payroll tax payments either. No payroll taxes? Maybe this is really the harmful "illegal" part of illegal immigration! If so, then we have a new criminal - the employer.
What about the fact that they take "our" jobs? I ask, are they really taking a job away from you? Most people I know who say this don't really mean that illegal immigrants take "my" job; these debaters would never be picking lettuce. Instead they mean that illegal immigrants take "a job that I expect someone, somewhere in America wants to do, but I don't know who that would be - my God, those jobs don't pay very well."
Indeed, it is said that illegal immigrants depress the wages in some jobs - the wages are held so low that no legal immigrant or citizen would take the job. The argument goes that if we choked off the supply of illegal labor, then the employers would have to raise the wage and citizens or legal immigrants would take those jobs. The folks I've talked with, to their credit, don't have a problem paying more for produce, gasoline, carwashes, etc, knowing that it would reflect the true cost to society of the service.
So, we have identified a group of people risking their lives as they cross the border to work illegally for almost no money. I really question whether we can seal the border from this kind of work-a-holic immigrant. As long as there are lots of job openings here, people will find a way across the border to take them.
To me this isn't a supply side problem, it is a demand issue. If we didn't have these "bad" employers breaking the law by paying these illegal immigrants under the table, then they wouldn't come here for jobs. We have to shut down the demand by punishing the employers of illegal immigrants.
My friends have said that finding all the employers of illegal immigrants is even harder than securing the border. How would we ever find them all?
This is where my brilliant idea comes in: pay the illegal immigrants to do it !!
Here's my plan... We tell illegal immigrants that if they report their employer to the authorities they will automatically get a renewable 3-year green card for themselves and five of their friends. To keep the green cards they will all have to testify in court against their (now former) employer. The employer would be fined back payroll taxes for all the illegal immigrants they had employed over the last five years - plus interest.
My plan would effectively shut down all illegal immigration in about 6 months, and put a big chunk of change in the treasury to boot!
Once we have shut down all the illegal immigration then employers will have to raise wages. The employers will have to participate in the legal employment market. And they will have to raise prices to compensate. However, there is a limit to what the American public will pay for strawberries, and that is the one problem with my plan.
Imagine, six months after my plan is in place all the illegal labor is gone. Farmers find that they have to pay more, but the most they can afford to pay, realistically, is about $8.00 an hour. With Starbuck's paying $7.00 an hour, plus benefits, I don't think any citizen or legal immigrant would take a job picking strawberries. Or cleaning toilets. Or bussing tables. They'd rather use their new green cards to pull the handle on the espresso machine. Or open their own small business. Remember, these people are work-a-holics, and they are not stupid.
The big problem with this plan (and all the others that kick out illegal immigrants) is that we actually need these immigrants to do these jobs. These folks are the ones that make our lives pleasant. Once my plan is working, we will have to open up our borders once again for more legal immigration. In our current political climate, I fear that this re-opening will take too long.
If my plan is put into place it will work brilliantly. But it will also work too well. One year after my plan is in place we will be bussing our own tables and using dirty toilets. And there won't be any California strawberries in the stores. Maybe congress will then pass a law to give us all a $100 rebate to buy strawberries.
Or perhaps a better plan is to realize that these illegal immigrants are productive members of our society. They work hard to take care of their families. Their hard work improves our own lives. We should realize that they deserve our respect, a decent wage for the work they do, a safe environment, health care, and education.
Sure, there are a few bad apples in the crate, but there are a few bad apples among the children of my upstanding citizen friends too. If you seriously consider the children of all your friends, you might be able to pick out one or two to "spend some time abroad" - say, 20 years? The fact is, building a big wall at the border doesn't get rid of the bad apples.
Hardworking illegal immigrants are human beings and a joy to have in our country. I welcome them with open arms.
Jim Schrempp is a sometimes freelance writer (only Vanity Press will publish his work) living in Saratoga, California. His writings have appeared on numerous pages on his own web site. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of anyone else.