Sunday, November 27, 2005

Illegal immigration and affordable lettuce

In a piece about California agribusiness, and its reliance on cheap illegal labor, Kevin Drum makes a lot of sense:
…farmers are flatly unwilling to pay their workers more. Whether that's because it would price their produce out of the market or because even a big wage increase wouldn't attract enough legal workers hardly matters. The evidence indicates that farmers would rather let their crops rot in the field than pay ten bucks an hour…we need to recognize that...Americans very clearly want and rely on immigrant labor. The key, then, is not to eliminate it, but to figure out a rational way of limiting illegal immigration without simultaneously demonizing immigrants themselves. This might include programs that make it harder to cross the border illegally, but only if we also provide legal status to many more immigrants than we do now…This combination -- easier legal immigration paired with tougher illegal immigration -- would provide immigrants with a greater incentive to try the legal route instead of the all-too-deadly "season of death" route. It would also provide us with the pool of immigrant labor we obviously want, increase immigrant wages, and cut down on the abuse they suffer from employers who know how easily they can be blackmailed.
Kevin is exactly correct here. I agree that illegal immigration is a security threat. Indeed I view the threat to our security as the primary problem with illegal immigration. If you're an al-Qaeda operative who wants entry into the US, learning a few words of Spanish and dressing as a Honduran peasant must be an appealing strategy.

But dealing with this aspect of the problem of illegal immigration could be dealt with by a decriminalization/rationalization strategy. In fact, I it's likely the only feasible way to deal with this issue, as it's becoming increasingly obvious that relying solely on law enforcement efforts isn't getting the job done.

Now, for the record, I'm not particularly worried one way or another about getting fresh produce. No doubt if California can't provide it, Chile or Brazil will. On the other hand, I don't see the benefit of denying this industry a supply of foreign labor. In other words, all things being equal, I'd prefer to eat California strawberries than foreign ones, and am not at all worried that my ability to eat domestically grown crops is partly contingent upon a slightly higher rate of (immigration-induced) population growth than would be the case if immigration were limited only to the current legal limits (around 900k per year).

I happen to think a modest level of population growth is a desirable "good" in and of itself, whether or not immigration accounts for much of the total. I disagree with those who view population growth as a negative, and immigration as at best a necessary evil that should be minimized as much as possible. Outside of the security issue, I just don't see the great harm in illegal immigration. But I agree that the security threat alone is sufficiently grave for me to want to see the number of people who come to the US in contravention of our laws to be zero.

I'll try a thought experiment. Let's suppose we came up with reforms that minimized illegal immigration, but required increasing legal immigration admissions by, say, 50% (to around 1.5 million annually). I would argue that's a deal we should take. After all, under such a scenario, the amount of immigration would stay about the same, it's just that 99% of it would now be coming through legal, observable channels, unlike the current situation where only perhaps 60% of it is legal. Anyway, a lot people, myself included, would argue that getting a handle on the illegal immigration issue involves just such a strategy.


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