As I See It

by

Published: January 26,2004

Our country is torn asunder over the issue of illegal immigrants – officially “undocumented workers” in governmentese. Several weeks ago President Bush announced his plan to temporarily legitimize illegal immigrants who are already in this country working.

What does it mean to America? Well, let`s look at some groups who have a dog in the hunt and see how they might be impacted by the Bush plan. To start, business stands to benefit from a growing pool of cheap labor. Labor unions see the potential for organizing a huge new constituency. Republicans think this move, which actually has little prospect of becoming law, solidifies Bush`s credentials as a compassionate conservative and is likely to boost his popularity among Latinos. Liberals see the plan as depriving lower income Americans of their jobs in favor of even lower income foreigners who will work cheap and under poor conditions.

Everyone will not be favorably disposed toward the new immigration plan. Many Americans want more control over illegal immigrants coming to our country. In fact, a 2002 Zogby poll indicated that 68 percent of Americans are so anxious about illegal immigration that they want to deploy troops along the border to cut the river down to a trickle.

Implications for America

Our country has a history of welcoming immigrants, then putting them in cheap jobs with awful working conditions and watching them gradually assimilate into our society. The Chinese who built the railroads, many of whom were literally worked to death, is one example. The shoddy treatment given the Irish upon their arrival in the northeastern United States is a part of our history. Of course, the worst example is the Africans who were brought here against their will and held as slaves until freed during the Civil War.

More recently, the Vietnamese shrimp boat operators were the bane of the Gulf Coast fishing fraternity. They worked harder than their competition and sold their fish cheaper in an effort to survive. They were roundly criticized for pursuing the American dream. Go figure!

Here in Mississippi, we depend heavily on Latino workers, many of who no doubt are here illegally, to do the undesirable, heavy lifting jobs in the poultry industry. Their presence is so prevalent in that industry that the community colleges in Central Mississippi are offering basic Spanish language classes to law enforcement and health care workers whom by necessity must deal with immigrants on a daily basis.

President Bush`s plan is pure politics. That it was publicized in a presidential election year was no accident. It is fairly academic to discuss the plan since it has little chance of passage by the Congress. However, immigration is an important issue and it`s not wasted time to think through the merits of varying strategies for addressing the problem.

It`s hard to raise a family on minimum wage income and threats of loosening immigration rules will likely prevent an increase in the minimum wage. That`s bad for those living at subsistence level but good for American consumers who no longer place much emphasis on “Made in America.” We want to buy stuff cheap and wearing a shirt that was “Made in Bangladesh” doesn`t concern us much.

I think the issue needs to be addressed. It`s ludicrous to pretend that it doesn`t exist. Looking at the American economy as a whole, loosening immigration is a good thing since cheap labor makes us more competitive with our trading partners who have access to even cheaper labor.

Putting economic implications aside and looking at security issues brings up another concern. How can we protect Americans against terrorists coming into the country when we can`t stop Mexican kids from trekking back and forth across the border daily? Truth is, we can`t.

Our border stretches over a vast expanse of nothing and, short of constructing a 1,500-mile Berlin wall with machine gun emplacements every few hundred yards, we cannot stop illegal entry into the United States. Even then we would still have unprotected borders on three sides of the country.

In the end, the wage rates around the world will equalize and decisions regarding where work is to be done and by whom will be based on talent and geography rather than salary rates. However, it will probably take a hundred years or more for that equalization to take place and we have to deal with issues today the best way we can.

America has always been a country who welcomed immigrants, including your ancestors, and mine and we will likely find a way to keep that tradition alive.

Thought for the Moment – Our real values are expressed in our actions, in what we do and how we do it. – Robert Rabbin, business consultant and writer

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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