by Rob Horning

31 March 2006


At the economics blog Asymmetrical Information.
Jane Galt has a few interesting posts that cut through the nationalistic nonsense regarding immigration, a current hot topic in American politics. Her points about the legitimate concerns here seem apt: Will immigrants bring with them an over religious or nepotistic habitus that might ultimately undermine the liberal and semi-meritocratic values by which America defines itself? (that is, before the native fundamentalist theocrats do it themselves). Will the import of poverty way out of scale with our homegrown version of it be too shocking for Americans to tolerate? (Are we willing to accept shanty towns and lean-tos and rings of blight around cities? Even more than what already exists?)

But these questions are usually left undiscussed in all the hysteria and fearmongering. Usually immigration debates are veiled expressions of America’s deep-seated racist tendencies; the right scores points by pitting racial groups against each other and by playing to white America’s fears of becoming a minority. The xenophobia inherent to the discussion finds its ultimate expression as a disdain for whatever suffering happens to be taking place beyond national borders. The misery of non-citizens is simply irrelevent, and we should build the walls as high as we can to allow ourselves to more easily ignore it.

Globalization advocates of course despise this kind of thinking; the free movement of the labor to jobs (and jobs to labor via outsourcing) is one the core principles to maximizing the market’s efficiency. Anti-immigration lawas are distortions of the global free market in labor, inhibiting the invisible hand from dispensing its benevolence all around the world. In practice, business exploits illegal immigrants, whom they can pay low wages and no benefits. Because the immigrants are leaving a much worse situation, this works for them, alleviating their poverty relative to Haiti or Mexico or wherever they have come from. But this arouses the resentment of low-skilled native workers, who can put no pressure on business to raise wages for the kind of work they are capable of. Their poverty, relative to living standards in America, worsens. This discontented group then becomes a bloc of motivated but by-and-large underinformed voters that politicians can seek to exploit with demogoguery. We then are treated to the specacle of seeing the impulse that founded this country—the desire for a better life so strong that one will risk it all and go to a completely alien place—made into a criminal enterprise.

Because what business needs in this case (a pool of cheap labor) makes for bad politics (dark-skinned non-English speakers taking advantage of our social services and keeping wages down), we end up with bad policy, like guest worker programs, a recipe for disaster. Why segregate a group as endentured servants and rub their nose in their inferior second-class status while at the same time expecting them to care for our children and cook our food?

So what will happen after all this hullaballoo? Probably the scenario outlined in the comments to Galt’s post—“get tough” laws will be passed and business lobbies will make sure they go unenforced.

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