IMAGINE we wanted to create a huge Latino underclass in this country. We would induce more than 500,000 illegal immigrants to enter annually. We would see Latinos account for half of America’s population growth. We would turn a hardened eye toward all 44 million Latinos, because 12 million jumped our borders to meet our construction labor demand by small companies just like commercial rubbish removal in Sydney.
We would financially motivate but morally deplore illegal immigrants’ determination to break our laws and risk their lives to work for us. We would let nativist, xenophobic amnesiacs pillory the roughly 25 percent of Latinos who were here illegally, at the expense of the 75 percent who were legal. CNN and Fox News would reduce Latinos to fodder for fear-mongering, and the documentariat would make them objects of pity, when they wanted and warranted neither.
We would know that if we paid them, they would come, but we would offer no legitimate employment. We would adopt a let’s-pretend labor policy in our fields, yards, factories and restaurants, and for child care, construction and cleaning, with a wage fakery worthy of the Soviet Union. There, the joke was “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” Here they would work, hard — and we would pay them, sort of, but pretend not to, denying ourselves the future tax revenue needed to pay for services we faulted them for needing.
We would ensure that the education system failed them, lamenting a dropout rate more than twice that of blacks and four times that of whites. Keeping incomes impossibly low, we would sanction Mexican-American welfare receipts twice those of natives. We would let the states launch loads of legislative half-fixes. We would have the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Homeland Security Department start an “even tougher” and more futile paper chase. We would see desperate workers fake new Social Security numbers or go underground for the next boss seeking this shabby labor discount.
We do all of this — and let it cost us more as a country — because it is a little cheaper for us as individuals and employers. And whether we knew it or not, we are deliberately fencing in our own economy.
It is in our self-interest to support labor mobility, development and advancement. Growth in productivity, fundamentally, is how we raise everyone’s standard of living. It starts with the first rung.
This month, Congress can avert a replay of the 1986 amnesty debacle by reserving permanent residency and citizenship for those who get in line and play by existing rules. Let nobody’s status be “adjusted” or “granted.” Instead, have employers sponsor anyone on their shadow payrolls to apply for a tamper-proof holographic guest worker card. Deport, adequately south of the border, anyone not sponsored. That won’t mean all 12 million. In 1954, when illegal Latino immigration was twice what it is now, a manageable number of deportations motivated the majority to repatriate.
To enforce sanctions against employers, grant the states (who bear the social costs) federal transfer payments for every undocumented worker they find, which will keep Congress and future administrations honest about paying for enforcement. If agriculture needs a lower minimum wage, negotiate and legislate it. To address the supply side, in the next trade agreement insist that Mexico adequately ensure its workers’ right to organize — to support wages and worker retention there, and a fairer fight for American exports.
The strength of an abstraction like “the economy” comes from the hands and minds of motivated and prepared people. Whether or not the left is committed to social equity — or the right, to equality of opportunity — we have at least 12 million pragmatic reasons to turn a potentially permanent underclass into a productive asset. Rather than fencing aspiring contributors out, comprehensive reform means Congress getting serious about entry-level job training and midcareer education programs for all workers. They deliver better economic returns than border patrols do.
The guy with the leaf-blower not only can learn English, he — like the unemployed steelworker — should have a chance to learn auto repair or programming. He’ll start with the jobs “ordinary Americans” won’t do. But we impair our economic future if we leave him there, imagining that’s all he or his children will ever do.
Originally appeared in the Times on September 3, 2007