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Illegal immigrants: A bonanza of cheap labor

By Samuel L. Blumenfeld
web posted May 29, 2006

If you want to know why you can buy a chicken at the supermarket sometimes for as little as 99 cents a pound, it’s because the chicken industry employs thousands of illegal immigrants to process the millions of chickens on the assembly line. If you want to know why golf courses and large condo villages can maintain beautiful lawns and gorgeous flower displays, it’s because of cheap immigrant labor. So why are we so upset by this plethora of cheap labor to pick the lettuce, gather the fruits off the trees, maintain clean public toilets, make the beds in motels, wash the dishes in restaurants, and do many of the other bottom-end jobs that have to be done?

The argument that there are no American citizens or legal immigrants who will do these jobs is false. What is true is that they will not do these jobs at the low wages that the illegals do them. Which means that without this illegal work force, we would have to pay much more to get these jobs done. Much more. Much of landscaping, for example, is mindless labor-intensive cleanup, maintenance, and planting work that the illegals are more than eager to do at the low wages they are being paid. We could indeed replace them, but at what extra cost?

China is now experiencing a labor shortage because more and more young Chinese are getting educated and will no longer do the menial work that low-wage Chinese workers have been famous for. So the price of Chinese exports to the U.S. will inevitably rise, which will make American exports more affordable to a growing Chinese middle class.

One advantage we have over the Chinese is our endless source of cheap labor from South of the Border. These thousands of illegals are willing to work for very low wages. If American employers could legally use more of this great work force to perform low-end industry jobs, we could produce at home much of what we are now importing from American plants built in low-wage countries. Indeed, it would be cheaper to manufacture these products here than import them from abroad.

But these arguments fall on deaf ears. Illegal immigration is seen as a moral and political problem rather than an economic one. Illegal Mexican and Latin American immigration is seen as a Latino invasion challenging the ethnic values of our Anglo-European culture. But over the decades, Latinos, as traditional Catholics and Evangelical Christians, have become well integrated in American society, contributing Hispanic richness to our culture. Just as Yiddish words are now sprinkled in our American language, Hispano-Latinisms are already enriching our speech.

The problem is not Mexican immigration, it’s Mexican illegal immigration. But what is the best way to tackle that problem? With about twelve million illegals already in our country, massive deportation is simply out of the question.

Considering the demonstrations we have seen in opposition to the criminalizing of illegal immigrants, we can imagine the violence that would occur should we try to round up the twelve million, put them on buses and trains, and dump them on the other side of the border. We cannot close the barn door now. It’s much too late. So, President Bush’s “guest worker” program is about the best we can do to make sense of the problem. Turning the illegals into guest workers will still provide us with a cheap labor force, enabling Americans to get many services done at low cost.

Also, any program to rationalize the problem will not appeal to many illegals, who will prefer to remain underground. As for building a wall to keep the illegals out, we know that they will continue to build tunnels and use other crude methods to break through whatever barriers we build.

So what can we do to reduce this illegal immigration problem? We could set up U.S. immigration offices throughout Mexico so that any Mexican who wants to come into the U.S. to work can apply for a guest-worker card and enter the country legally. Because this would increase the number of legal guest-workers applying for jobs, wages could be kept low enough to make their hiring feasible. Their status would not require paying them our minimum wage. Their wage scale would be determined by the industries which hire them.

It may seem heartless to take advantage of these immigrants. But they come here knowing that they will not be eligible for minimal wage, health coverage, and other benefits normally available to U.S. citizens and legal immigrants. And as long as they remain an illegal underground work force, they will continue to be exploited by unscrupulous employers.

The simple truth is that there is no easy fix to a problem that we have allowed to grow over decades. Attempts to solve the problem years ago have failed. And the pressure from poor and desperate Mexicans to enter this country in search of work will continue into the indefinite future. Also, our low unemployment figures indicate that more jobs are being created for American citizens and legal immigrants and that our economy needs the immigrants to do the bottom-end jobs that must be done. In fact, one of the reasons why American food products, such as frozen chicken, have been able to gain a great market overseas is because of the cheap labor used in processing these products.

The illegal immigration problem is an economic one, not a political one. The Mexicans are coming here to work, not recapture the Southwest for Mexico. And so, if we really believe in the free-market system, why don’t we turn this situation into an economic advantage instead of an insoluble political problem? If we have easy access to the cheapest work force on the planet, let’s make the most of it.

Samuel L. Blumenfeld is the author of eight books on education, including, "Alpha-Phonics: A Primer for Beginning Readers," "The Whole Language/OBE Fraud," and "Homeschooling: A Parents Guide to Teaching Children." These books are available on Amazon.com.

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