Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Guest Workers

Republicans and Democrats alike have chided President Bush for not tightening immigration controls, especially the border with Mexico. More than a couple political theorists suggest that a Democrat could win the White House in 2008 by running “to the right” of the GOP on the issue of Immigration, by pursuing a sterner position on Immigration and Border Security than has been presented up to now. The problem with such thinking is that it misses the nature of alien worker demographics in the United States, and so cannot claim a solution where it misdiagnoses the cause.

To be sure, many aliens enter the United States, legally and otherwise, for the purpose of becoming citizens here, and especially in the hope that their children will be American citizens. But observers miss key clues that show other plans and intentions of these visiting workers. A common practice by Mexican workers in the United States, especially among migrant workers, is to work in the United States and send money home to Mexico and other Latin American countries. More than a few alien workers have openly stated their plan to work in the United States until they have saved a certain amount, then return home where their money brings a relatively comfortable life. Americans themselves do that all the time; my own father once took a contract position that sent him to work in far north Alaska for eight months, because the money for the job was far better than any regular work he could get that allowed him to come home every day.

And it’s not just Latinos that do this. I have met with a large number of Asians who work hard in the United States because they can do so with few restrictions, sending as much as 80% of their earnings home. They do this by living in conditions most Americans would consider appalling, such as gong si fongs where as many as fifteen men may share a single apartment, and do little more than work, eat, and sleep. The modern convenience of wire transfers makes such finances possible.

The United States certainly suffers from this practice; the illegal workers do not pay income taxes, and the habit of using indigent services for medical and social care for families certainly taxes an overburdened system. Also, companies learn to play the game, hiding illegal workers to avoid their share of Social Security taxes and INS audits, and the habit of some to cheat their workers then report them to Immigration is a disgusting practice. But the United States also benefits from this condition, as skilled workers perform their work for far less than nominal wages, allowing regions to profit from a corrupt tradition. Reform is not going to be enough, but closing the borders would simply cause as many problems as it solves.

The proper steps, I believe, are not politically sexy but common-sense. Begin with enforcing the laws on the books. Beef up funding for the Border Patrol and INS, especially with linguists. Punish companies which abuse alien workers, make an example of two or three of them, and put real teeth into laws against smuggling people into the country, especially where their subjects have been coerced into carrying drugs or prostitution. Make it unprofitable. One immediate effect this will have, is to show our neighbors that things have changed on this particular playing field, and that will make the next steps easier to plan and make reality.

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