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The true cost of "cheap" labor: the costs associated with uncontrolled immigration and flooding the U.S. job market with foreign, low-wage laborers far outweigh any savings to be gained.

One of the great myths of the immigration debate is that American workers will not do the types of jobs currently being filled in large part by illegal immigrants. A corollary to this train of thought is that the historically unprecedented levels of immigration, much of it illegal, benefits the U.S. economy and improves our standard of living.

Proponents of this school of thought rarely put forth facts or figures to support their assertion, instead they simply point to the preponderance of recent immigrants in unskilled and low-paying jobs as de facto proof that Americans refuse to do what is traditionally considered menial labor. As a result, some in the business community, supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, clamor for a liberal guest-worker program based upon the assumption that without one, America will face a longterm labor shortage and economic ruin. This enormous megaphone of unchallenged opinion has partially succeeded in convincing Americans that without continued access to millions of foreign workers, America's economy will wither on the vine, and that the best way to stop illegal immigration is to pass guest-worker legislation.

One of the most fraudulent economic claims regarding immigration comes from the agricultural industry. For years we have been led to believe that the market for seasonal agricultural workers remains very tight, despite the massive influx of alien workers, and that any reduction of labor would result in skyrocketing consumer costs. But in 1993, the bipartisan Commission on Agricultural Workers determined that an oversupply of workers existed. Since then, successive governmental and nonpartisan commissions have come to the same conclusion--the seasonal agricultural market is literally awash with willing workers. There is no shortage, and even if there were a tight market, this would improve wages and benefits and do more to lift workers out of poverty than any of the social-welfare schemes foisted upon Americans since the 1960s.

On the surface, the claim that native-born Americans will not perform seasonal agricultural work and other "hard labor" jobs appears true. But it is not because Americans fear hard work. The fact is that poor Americans are not willing to work for depressed wages when state-sponsored welfare is readily available. Increasing numbers of illegal aliens drive down wages and make working in the fields or packing plants less attractive to American workers.

Challenging the Assumptions

A recent illegal immigration crackdown at a number of Swift & Company meat-packing plants across the country illustrates the economic point that Americans will, when paid more than a sub-subsistence wage, fill the so-called undesirable jobs that only recent immigrants will take. Almost immediately after hundreds of illegal workers were rounded up, creating an actual tight market, Swift & Company officials increased wages by $1.95 per hour to attract legal workers. The results were predictable. U.S. citizens queued up by the hundreds outside the doors of Swift & Company employment offices for the chance to do the difficult work that experts tell us American citizens will no longer do.

Job displacement is the handmaid of illegal immigration. According to a 1993 report of the Commission on Agricultural Workers, native peach-industry workers in Georgia, many of them African American, were displaced by Hispanic migrants. Additional reports by the commission noted that migrants replaced natives and previous immigrants in the cucumber and apple industries in Michigan. The commission documented another case in which mechanized agricultural packing houses in Michigan ceased operations after switching to manual packing in the field. The unionized native workers were eliminated almost overnight, their jobs replaced by lower-paid field hands from south of the border. The glut of illegal aliens suppressed wages, shut out American workers, and consigned newly arrived immigrants to a life of impoverishment. The same holds true on a larger scale today.

Proponents of guest-worker legislation maintain that it is just and right to use labor from Mexico. They claim that U.S. consumers benefit from low-wage farm labor in the form of low supermarket prices. But the consumer price benefits are small because the labor cost is only part of the total cost. In any case, the price benefits at the supermarket are outweighed by costs associated with healthcare, law enforcement, and education.

In 1996, agricultural economists at Iowa State estimated that the removal of illegal workers from the work force would prompt a short-term 6 percent price increase at the supermarket for summer and fall produce, gradually decreasing to a 3 percent intermediate term increase. And even this figure may be overstated (see article on page 24). Relying on a native labor force and legal temporary workers during the winter-spring season would reduce the increases by half.

According to Philip L. Martin, Ph.D., professor of Agriculture and Resource Economics at UC-Davis, the average household in 2004 spent about $370 per year on fresh produce. In an article entitled "How We Eat: 2004," (Rural Migration News, January 2006), Martin posits that a tightening of the agricultural labor market, achieved by decreasing the number of aliens in the field, would lead to a 40 percent increase in farm labor wages, and a mere $9 per year increase in food costs to the average American household. On the other hand, farm laborers would enjoy an increase in earnings that would lift them above the poverty line, and make the use of welfare less attractive.

A tight labor market in which employees are at a premium is preferable to a surplus labor market. Worker wages and benefits improve, not as a result of government interference but in the natural economic context in which workers are paid in harmony with their true value.

Amnesty proponents also make great use of the moral high ground, claiming that the United States has an ethical duty to lift illegal migrants out of poverty. But what is the moral justification for displacing native workers and consigning recent immigrants, legal or otherwise, to a life of poverty in low-wage, dead-end jobs, so that agribusinesses may increase their profits while the average American saves mere pennies at the supermarket? Most Americans would welcome an insignificant increase at the supermarket, and a higher quality of life for farm laborers, if it meant reducing the costs associated with runaway illegal immigration.

The costs associated with uncontrolled immigration far outweigh any savings gained from the use of low-wage labor. According to a March 2005 Current Population Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, statistics indicate that 29 percent of immigrant-headed households use at least one major welfare program, compared with 18 percent for native households. Equally disturbing is the low level of education and high level of poverty that characterize recent immigrants. The poverty rate for immigrants and their U.S. born children stands at 18.4 percent--fully 57 percent higher than that of the native population. It is true that, as in the past immigration patterns, immigrants make economic progress the longer that they live in the United States, but even after 15 years they still suffer from higher rates of poverty, and utilize welfare programs more than natives.

Recent estimates indicate that the net cost (after tax contributions are subtracted) of post-1969 immigration approached $61 billion in 2000, of which $35 billion was attributed to illegal immigration. In 1996, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that the total annual immigrant welfare benefits receipts totaled $180 billion! These numbers are sure to increase as the current wave of immigration shows no sign of abating.

The Social Dimension

The true cost of runaway immigration cannot be measured solely in economic terms. There is a social dimension that threatens to undermine the fabric of our nation. The educational level of recent immigrants is far below that of the native population. In 2005, fully 31 percent of recent adult immigrants lacked a high-school diploma--a figure more than three times that of the native population. Over a third of immigrants lack health insurance, accounting for three-fourths of the uninsured population since 1989.

So what is the true social and economic impact of uncontrolled immigration, whether it is legal or illegal? We must ask ourselves if it is truly in the nation's best interest to allow millions of foreign workers to flood certain segments of the job market under the misconception that such activity is needed to sustain the U.S. economy. And where is the wisdom in driving down wages, forcing native workers out, and creating a permanent foreign-born underclass? Division and social unrest cannot be far behind such a model. Finally, can a nation that has largely abandoned its formerly successful assimilation model expect to sustain itself as a united entity? These questions, and others, are largely absent from the current debate, and we ignore them at our own peril.
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Title Annotation:IMMIGRATION
Author:Telzrow, Michael E.
Publication:The New American
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Feb 19, 2007
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