Immigration Dilemmas

		  Dissent, Fall 1993

                  Richard Rothstein
Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. He writes a bimonthly column for the L.A. Weekly and La Opinion.

During the presidential campaign, Bill Clinton delivered a foreign policy speech in Los Angeles; the first question from the audience was a predictable, "Who are your foreign policy advisers going to be?" Clinton demurred, calling such considerations premature. Next, a questioner asked the candidate what he proposed to do about illegal immigration. Clinton said he didn't know what to do, since immigration is the most complex issue facing the nation. "If you have an answer," Clinton told the questioner, "you can be my foreign policy adviser!" It may have been the first time the "policy-wonk" candidate couldn't come up with a ready solution.

The impossibility of border control is the most obvious difficulty. The Coast Guard can't effectively police every mile of our coastline; the occasional interception of a Chinese human cargo ship is only token. We now have over three thousand federal agents patrolling two thousand miles of the U.S.-Mexican land border, also with little success. Last year, the Border Patrol intercepted 1.2 million would- be immigrants from Mexico, but since there is no point to incarcerating them (or jail space to do so), nearly all are sent back to try again; 100,000 to 600,000 a year evade capture. So if the intercepted ones keep trying, the odds are increasingly in their favor. Giving up on border control is no solution either. Open contempt for any important law engenders disrespect for the law itself, so we owe it to our national integrity to make serious attempts at enforcement. Also, setting aside for the moment the complicated question of whether newcomers compete with native workers for jobs, it is indisputable that undocumented immigrants who take jobs in labor-short occupations deny places to would-be lawful immigrants who live in nations from which illegal entry is less practical. It is to these equally desperate and ambitious migrants that our ineffective border control is most unfair.

When we attempted to rescue respect for law by abandoning our fifty-five-miles-per-hour speed limit in rural areas because most people flouted it, we established a new limit of sixty-five mph, a level we thought drivers would respect. But for illegal immigration, there is no analogous solution, because the most sophisticated analysts can't make a reasonable guess at the level of immigration that must be allowed before control is practical. Even today's educated guess could change tomorrow, based on political developments abroad (like the Tiananmen massacre or the overthrow of Aristide) or changes in economic growth rates and job creation in places like Mexico and the Dominican Republic. The reality would also change with job opportunities here. Fewer immigrants would come if they knew there was no work awaiting them; even in poor countries, people rarely want to leave their families and communities. It's not that the pressure for illegal immigration is so great that if we relaxed our barriers, we'd be inundated with hordes of immigrants. Though nobody knows how many Mexicans would actually immigrate if they could do so unimpeded, the number is smaller than most Americans think. Early in this century, when Mexicans were even poorer relative to Americans than they are today, American railroads and farmers had to send recruiters to Mexico to beg laborers to come. In Europe, experts feared there would be massive migration of poor Italians to high-wage countries like France and Germany when the European Community (EC) was established, so Italian emigration was restricted. When restrictions were finally abandoned in 1968, however, few Italians left home. The wage differential between Germany and Italy was still four to one, but for most Italians, the income difference wasn't great enough to make the upheaval worthwhile. Today, despite continuing income differences between countries like Ireland, Spain, Greece, and Italy, on the one hand, and France and Germany on the other, only 1.5 percent of the EC's population was born in a different EC country from the one in which they now reside. The EC has lots of immigrantsbut most come from poorer countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

Americans who are frustrated with our country's inability to regulate immigration might reflect on the experience of other industrial nations, even those with less inclusive traditions. Japan, for example, with its aging workforce and declining fertility rate, also has a need for low-wage immigrants, even now in a stagnant economy. Since 1989 Japan has crafted a temporary, and racist, solution by recruiting some 200,000 (according to official government figures) South American workers who have partial Japanese ancestry. But professional smuggling rings are already at work importing South Americans with documents faking Japanese bloodlines. As immigration expert Wayne Cornelius points out, of the 30,000 Peruvians now in Japan, half may be illegal. In addition to those counted in official data, there may be as many as 250,000 Brazilians who came to Japan as "tourists" and then stayed on to work. Japan also has illegal immigrants from Malaysia, Thailand, Iran, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who overstayed tourist visas. And there are 700,000 Koreans living in Japan, many descended from laborers imported by force during Japan's prewar occupation of Korea, others who immigrated illegally in recent years. The sociologist Nathan Glazer has remarked that one does not note in Japan, a country with very few immigrants, unmade hotel beds, unwashed dishes in restaurants, unmanned filling stations. "It seems there is a way of managing even without immigrants." Glazer should look again. In 1992 alone, 280,000 foreigners came to Japan on short-term visas and then disappeared into the country.

And then there is France, whose new conservative government proclaims a goal of "zero immigration." It's a fantasy. There are already one million undocumented immigrants living in France, with another 4.5 million immigrants there illegally-mostly Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians. All told, immigrants make up over 10 percent of France's population, and many have relatives and friends who are ready to join them, legally or illegally.

Last year, one thousand would-be immigrants drowned while trying to swim to Spain. Uncounted others made it, ferried to a point two hundred yards from shore by Moroccan smugglers. In return for a promise of $2 billion in aid from the EC, Morocco has now agreed to station 3,500 troops on its beaches to try to deter human smuggling, yet the illegal immigration continues. In Germany there are nearly two million Turkish immigrants, brought into the country over a thirty-year period as "guest workers" who never went home. All told, there are probably five million undocumented immigrants in Western Europe, 1.5 percent of the population. In the United States, there are perhaps three and a half million undocumenteds, a slightly smaller share of our population, though we have another three million formerly undocumented persons who were "legalized" after the 1986 amnesty. Our self-image of America as a nation uniquely open to immigration is historically accurate but less true today. Although our immigration restrictionists are now more civilized than those in Germany, the 8.5 percent of our population that is foreign-born is not much greater than the 8.2 percent of German residents who came from elsewhere. In 1920, however, over 13 percent of Americans were foreign-born. Then we were unique, but not now, when throughout the world one hundred million people are immigrants in one country or another.

Push and Pull

All industrialized nations have an "immigration problem" for similar reasons. When labor markets are tight or we want agricultural or service work performed cheaply, we welcome immigrants, sometimes without restriction, sometimes through official "guest worker" programs. But bringing guest workers into a country is easier than sending them home. Once they arrive, it is virtually impossible to prevent them from leaving the jobs for which they were recruited and finding other work.

It used to be easer to send immigrants back when their work was done, because their wives were content to wait for them at home. But many Mexican women, for example, are no longer willing to stay home while their husbands travel back and forth to earn money in the United States. Now, women want to come north to work as well, either with their husbands or independently. Since 1987 alone, the number of Mexican women attempting to cross the border illegally has doubled, while the number of men has not changed. A consequence is declining return migration for men.

Once an immigration group establishes a presence, networks linking immigrants with their home country become difficult to break. In the United States, we give priority for legal immigration to "family reunification" meaning that immigrants can bring their relatives here at the head of the line. For example, workers amnestied under the 1986 law will soon be eligible to bring in family members--several million additional legal residents.

Few immigrants leave home without some idea of how to find work in America. Once an immigrant community is established here, this becomes a lot easier. Immigrants recruit friends and relatives from back home when their employers need additional help. In the garment districts of Los Angeles, New York, or Miami, entire plants are staffed by immigrants from the same small village in Mexico, El Salvador, or China. Once such powerful networks are established, policy is impotent to break them.

When George Bush and Carlos Salinas first began promoting the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), one of their claims was that providing more jobs in Mexico would reduce the Mexicans' desire to emigrate. The claim is heard less frequently now because it has become clear that the relationship is more complex. Emigration is expensive (the illegal kind often requires hiring a guide and buying false documents for as much as $2,000), and the poorest Mexicans can't afford it. If Mexico becomes more prosperous, more people will have money to pay for emigration.

Traditional societies send few emigrants, but the disruption of traditional ways spurs emigration. As countries industrialize, formerly rural workers, now more rootless, begin to think of the next step---emigration. Industrial workers aspire to better jobs, and when they reach the limit of their upward mobility at home, think of the next step---emigration. Undocumented Mexican immigrants are almost never those without jobs at home; they have above-average education and aspirations whetted by urban industrial employment. In the 1970s, South Korea's economy was the fastest growing in the world, and its emigration rate to the United States was also the fastest growing. Today, the ratio of U.S. to Mexican wages is about seven to one, and the ratio of living standards (measured purchasing power) is about three to one. As this gap narrows, economic growth and development in Mexico will initially stimulate increased migration to the United States. At some point in the future, most experts believe, the gap will be come small enough that emigration will slow. But nobody can hazard a guess about when that point might come. One U.S. government commission recently concluded it could take "several generations." Something short of full equality with U.S. incomes is necessary. Few Americans, after all, move from city to city in search of relatively small wage increases, so long as they have a job at home. Mexicans are even less likely to abandon their culture and homeland for small income differences. As noted earlier, a four-to-one ratio wasn't enough to spur Italian moves to Germany. Immigration flows are even more immune to policy influences because the relationship between economic status at home and the propensity to migrate varies from society to society and from time to time. By 1980, one-third of working -age persons born in Puerto Rico had migrated to the mainland. The migrants were Puerto Ricans with below-average education levels, and they were more likely to be unemployed before leaving the island---just the opposite of today's Mexican immigrants. Why? According to economists Alida Castillo-Freeman and Richard Freeman, it is because Congress raised Puerto Rico's minimum wage so high that island unemployment increased; for the remaining jobs, employers were able to select only the most qualified workers, who then chose not to migrate and accepted relatively good pay at home. Those left on the streets migrated. By establishing a high minimum wage for Puerto Rico, Congress in effect determined that it was better to bring unskilled Puerto Rican migrants to New York than to send New York jobs to Puerto Rico. Had the Puerto Rican minimum wage been lower, fewer islanders would have migrated, but more factories would have left the mainland for the island's low-wage haven. Can we conclude from the Puerto Rican experience that Mexican migration will slow if Mexican wages are kept low? No: too many other factors will intervene.

In reality, NAFTA and trade policy could become irrelevant to the volume of future immigration flows from Mexico, since, as Wayne Cornelius suggests, these factors are likely to be swamped by Mexico's domestic agriculture policy. Before President Salinas's policies of economic liberalization, Mexico subsidized peasants to remain in rural areas; the government, for example, bought corn from peasants at twice the world price and prohibited the sale of communal farmlands to private investors. But last year the Mexican constitution was amended to permit these lands to be sold, and it is widely expected that corn and bean subsidies will decline. The purpose of these policies is to encourage investment in efficient cash crops for export, but if successful, they will result in many fewer peasants working the land: approximately one million peasants are expected to leave farming annually during the next ten to twenty years. The Mexican labor force is already growing at the rate of one million job seekers per year, from three hundred thousand to half a million more than current economic growth can absorb. Emigration pressures will be irresistible, regardless of NAFTA or U.S. border policies.

Paying for Our Pensions

Two claims fuel much of the recent debate about immigration. One is that immigrants draw more on public services (like welfare and public health) than they contribute in taxes. The second is that immigrants take jobs from the rest of us.

It is true that local government is burdened by immigrant services. Over 10 percent of California's immigrants are on welfare, and over 25 percent of southern California's jail population are immigrants. But at the same time, our national budget is becoming more dependent on immigrant taxes. Fewer Americans will be working when the baby-boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964) begins to reach retirement age in 2010. By that time, we will have spent the boomers' Social Security contributions to offset the federal budget deficit. So we'll need the taxes of younger working immigrants to pay Medicare and Social Security for the older generation. The services-taxes balance of which we now complain will become a national, not a local issue. And immigrants will become part of the solution, not the problem.

Today, 12 percent of Americans are over sixty-five years old, and their health and retirement benefits consume about one-third of all federal spending. When the baby-boom gen- eration retires, 20 percent will be over sixty-five. No longer paying income or Social Security taxes, they will instead consume Social Security and Medicare. These benefits can be paid for only by large tax increases on those still working, by big jumps in productivity, or by changes in the ratio of working to retired Americans. We can improve the ratio if we make people work longer and raise their retirement age. Minor steps have already been taken: the normal retirement age for Social Security will be raised to sixty-seven in 2027, and further increases are inevitable. We can also improve the ratio with an increase in birth rates, so that more young workers are available to replace those who retire. This is also happening: the fertility rate (children borne by the average woman) has jumped from 1.87 to 2.05 in the last five years. But this is not something we necessarily want to encourage; it contradicts, for example, our desire to reduce teen pregnancies.

Ultimately, we can't increase the working-to-retired ratio enough without a lot more immigration. While only 26 percent of the U.S. population is now in the prime working age of twenty to thirty-nine, 46 percent of immigrants are in that age group. Retiring baby boomers need people who contribute more in taxes than they consume in services. Immigration will have to be an increasing part of the solution, not only in the United States, but throughout the industrial world. Germans now retire at age sixty, but the sixty-and-over set, now 21 percent of Germany's population, will make up 30 percent by the year 2020. With fewer workers to pay that many pensions, Germany has increased its retirement age to sixty-five, effective in 2012. Germany needs more young Turks, not fewer. Japan's fertility rate is only 1.53 and, in thirteen years, Japan is expected to become the first country in the world where over 20 percent of the population is older than sixty-five, a point the United States can expect to reach by 2025, unless there is a lot more immigration.

Competition for Jobs

Do immigrants take jobs from residents? In some cases they do and in others they provide labor no native group is willing to supply. It is impossible to design an immigration policy that bars the "takers" and welcomes the "providers."

Important industries (garment manufacturing, for example) could not exist without an immigrant labor supply; no native workers are available or willing to work in these industries even in periods of high unemployment. If natives willing to work, they would demand wage-and-benefit were with packages that would certainly make the industries uncompetitive with companies based abroad. Our minimum wage is now so low, however, that lawful employers can survive by paying the minimum to immigrant workers, while sweatshop operators exploit immigrants' vulnerability and collect an additional premium. Because of immigrant seamstresses, an industry exists that supports not only its professional and managerial employees but a variety of upstream workers in computer software, machine tools, textiles, and petrochemicals. In Los Angeles, with mostly undocumented immigrant workers, the garment industry has grown in the last decade, while manufacturing as a whole, and especially garment manufacturing, has declined nationwide.

There is also no displacement of native workers in low-wage service jobs, in restaurant kitchens, say, or hotels. It is, of course, theoretically possible that restaurants and hotels could be forced to pay wages high enough to attract American high school graduates, but if they did so, we'd have many fewer (because much more expensive) vacations and conventions, not to mention meals away from home.

American upper-middle-class life is dependent on immigrant workers performing tasks at wages no established resident would consider. Zoe Baird didn't need to hire an illegal immigrant to care for her child; she could have afforded to pay good wages. But most two-job families or single parents are not in Baird's income class. Immigrant wages for housecleaning, lawn mowing, child care, and even car washing make work outside the home feasible for people who could otherwise not afford it. Those who dream of cities without poorly educated low-wage immigrants should be required to describe what middle-class and even lower-middle-class life would be like without them. It can't be done, but the fantasy persists that a policy could be devised that welcomes the restaurant, hotel, and personal service workers on whom we obviously depend, but bans all others.

Another important industry that could not exist but for immigrants is horticulture. In a way, George Bush's inability to banish broccoli from health-conscious American diets is one cause of undocumented immigration. Harvest of corn, wheat, and other grains is mechanized, but fruit, vegetable, and nut horticulture, occupying only 1 percent of U.S. farmland, is labor-intensive and consumes 40 percent of total farm wages. A broccoli crop, for example, requires fifty-two labor-hours per acre. According to agricultural economists Phil Martin and Edward Taylor, U.S. acreage devoted to broccoli increased by 50 percent in the 1980s as Americans' annual fresh broccoli consumption almost tripled to 4.5 pounds per person. Broccoli alone brought two thousand migrant farmworkers from rural Mexico to the United States. Other healthy fruits and vegetables had a similar impact; fresh tomato consumption jumped from thirteen to eighteen pounds per person, and U.S. production grew by 38 percent. Production of all vegetables combined rose by 33 percent, because even imports from countries like Mexico and Chile couldn't satiate Americans' hunger for more vitamins and roughage. Besides, Latin Americans also want to stay healthy. Carlos Salinas's goal of "exporting tomatoes, not tomato pickers" is frustrated by Mexicans' consumption of tomatoes at twice the per-capita rate of Americans. Even rapid expansion of Mexican tomato acreage won't replace U.S. growers' demands for immigrant labor.

Bush did make something of a contribution to solving the problem. Since fresh-vegetable consumption rises with upscale lifestyles, holding down personal income growth kept vegetable acreage from increasing even more than it did. Martin and Taylor report that fresh vegetables have high "elasticities"; in other words, a 1 percent increase in family income is associated with a 1 percent increase in broccoli and lettuce consumption and a 2.4 percent increase for cauliflower. So if the Clinton administration succeeds in reversing the trend of declining family income, Americans will eat even more veggies, requiring more rural immigrants, legal or not.

Factoring these kinds of variables into rational immigration rules is beyond the ability of any policymaker. We can let migrant workers in as the demand for vegetables expands , but how do we reduce the number of "guests" when demand contracts, and how can we require them to avoid enticing their brothers and cousins to join them? Communist governments were mostly successful at preventing workers from being employed without authorization but no other governments have been able to do so.

There are also industries where immigrants do compete with natives, and this competition not only creates native unemployment but reduces wages for those who remain at work as well. Here's one example: fifteen years ago, residential drywallers---the people who erect plasterboard for interior home walls-were represented by the carpenters' union in southern California. They averaged about $1,100 in weekly earnings, in today's dollars. Union drywall agreements required homebuilders to pay for full family health insurance. Each employer contributed to a vacation and pension fund for each hour worked. But in the late 1970s, contractors began to hire Mexican immigrants to work without union contract protection. Immigrant workers in turn recruited their friends and relatives, and by 1982 enough nonunion drywallers (many from just one town in rural Mexico) were available, and the contractors stopped hiring union labor altogether. With the carpenters' union out of the picture, contractors also dropped their health insurance plans, stopped paying into vacation and pension funds, and cut wages. Contractors now dealt only with labor brokers who paid workers in cash and ignored incometax withholding, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and minimum-wage laws. By 1992, drywallers worked nearly sixty hours a week to take home $300 in cash, with no benefits. In an atypical action, these undocumented immigrant construction workers went on strike to bring back the carpenters' union. A clever union lawyer went after the contractors for minimum-wage violations and used the potential back-pay liability to leverage a strike settlement that included reinstatement of health insurance and a wage increase. Drywallers now earn about double what they got before the strike, and about half what nonimmigrant workers earned a decade earlier.

The construction industry where immigrants displaced native workers and the vegetable industry where no natives choose to work are extreme ends on a scale of displacement. Advocates of loosening border controls cite the former; advocates of tightening cite the latter. Some industries, like garment, can be cited by each. Fifteen years ago, undocumented immigrants fully displaced African-American garment workers in many cities, because the immigrants were willing to tolerate wages and conditions far below what legal gal workers were used to. In Los Angeles, for example, fifty- five thousand native garment workers were displaced by immigrants in the 1970s. But today, international competition in garment assembly has become so fierce that a domestic industry probably could not survive if it paid the wages of fifteen years ago. Can immigrants, therefore, be said to have displaced African-American workers in the garment industry? Yes and no.

Today it's probably the case that more immigrants are working in jobs natives don't want than in competitive occupations. But even though laid-off aerospace engineers don't normally seek work as gardeners or car washers, this is a hard argument to make when unemployment is high and wages are declining. And the argument will become even harder if the proposals of some reformers---to increase the immigration of skilled workers-become law. Expanding legal immigration quotas for professional and technical work'll certainly increase competition for scarce jobs.


Total border control is an unrealizable dream; it is impossible to calculate immigration flows to match domestic employment needs; and a variety of uncontrollable and unpredictable economic, political, and social developments in sending countries will, in any event, have a lot to do with the actual level of immigration. As candidate Clinton realized, we can't hope to design a coherent immigration policy. But there are piecemeal policies we can implement that address some of the problems, at least around the edges.

These reforms might, if we are lucky, combine with other political and economic developments to slow the "push" of immigrants from sending countries, provide some additional protection for native workers in those few industries where competition with immigrants is a reality, and encourage more honorable and responsible treatment of immigrants, who, in any event, will continue to arrive. It's not that stepped-up border patrols are entirely useless; it's just that we shouldn't delude ourselves into believing that massive national and international political and economic forces can be reversed by more vigilant policing.

One important reform would be a Mexican development program that goes beyond free trade. If we truly want less Mexican immigration, persuading the Mexican government to slow its agricultural liberalization would be one approach. Failing that, we could underwrite targeted industrial policy in Mexico, which, in violation of free trade rules, would subsidize the development of small industries in rural areas where peasants are being displaced. Funds spent in this way might be more effective than hiring more Border Patrol agents.

Similarly, a more aggressive and earlier defense of Haiti's democratic government was, in retrospect, the only sensible (and morally decent) immigration policy we could have adopted with regard to that country's boat people. The civil wars in Central America and Indochina, whatever else they might have been, will ultimately have affected America most by raising immigration flows---as any tour through Salvadoran, Vietnamese, and Cambodian communities in California will attest. But these likely results are rarely considered when foreign policy is fashioned.

Better labor standards enforced in this country would also address parts of the problem. If labor law had been reformed so it wasn't so easy for construction contractors to abandon their contractual relationships with trade unions, it might have been more difficult for immigrants to displace union members in California's homebuilding industry. Enforcement of minimum-wage, health and safety, and other workplace rules could reduce, albeit only marginally, incentives for employers to substitute immigrants for natives in other industries where real competition takes place. Higher labor standards in immigrant industries where native workers don't choose to work would also ameliorate political conflict over the unavoidable presence of undocumented workers. A national health insurance plan, for example, that covered all workers whether here legally or not would relieve the burden of taxpayers to provide for immigrant health in public emergency rooms and hospitals. Minimum-wage enforcement in immigrant industries, along with a more hospitable climate for union organizing, would put more money into immigrant neighborhoods and increase their tax contributions to the broader community, while reducing immigrant use of welfare, food stamp, and similar benefits.

And also, of course, we could stop eating broccoli.