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Racism and Illegal Immigration

The intellectually honest should recognize that opposing illegal immigration has nothing to do with racism.

by
Clayton E. Cramer

Bio

June 17, 2009 - 12:00 am

I’m quite tired of the constant accusation that opponents of illegal immigration are racists.

Ruben Navarrette’s recent PJM column uses a sample size of one reader to determine that racism is the real reason that Americans are concerned. He claims that what most Americans actually say — that it’s “about respect for law and order and worry over how illegal immigrants supposedly take jobs, drain services, pollute the environment, wreck the schools, and diminish quality of life” — is just a sham. It’s really about racism and fear of living in a Latino nation.

I have no illusions that racism has completely disappeared. I do — occasionally — hear anti-Hispanic sentiments expressed. But the claim that the average American is afraid of Latinos outbreeding us shows a level of long-term thinking that I find laughable. What those playing the race card seem to be missing is that much of the resentment isn’t aimed at Latinos, or even illegal immigrants — but at the employers who abuse our broken immigration laws.

Illegal immigrants are overwhelmingly low-skilled and poorly educated. What they do have is a willingness to work and to go where the jobs are — and that isn’t Mexico. In that sense, we may be seeing some of Mexico’s best. But that doesn’t change the fact that increasing the supply of laborers, all other factors being constant, will drive down wages in that market segment. In my market segment, software engineering, cheap Asian labor coming here on H-1B visas has driven down wages — although I don’t expect many of you will be sympathetic if I tell you what those diminished wage rates are!

However, unskilled illegal immigrants who have flooded across our Southern border the last few years aren’t driving down the wages of well-paid professionals. They are lowering the wages for unskilled U.S. citizens and legal residents. It might not be much, but even a dollar per hour matters for people who earn hardly above minimum wage. For some, it’s the difference between self-sufficiency and needing government assistance.

In addition, because illegal immigrants are poorly paid, they are less likely to have health insurance than the average American. So what happens when they need medical care? Like many others without health insurance, they delay seeking help until it is an emergency, and the costs of those emergency room visits are shouldered by taxpayers or cost-shifted to those who do have insurance.

Let me be very clear: I am not blaming illegal immigrants for this.

I’m blaming their employers, who enjoy the individual benefit of a cheap labor force, while socializing the costs of that labor force onto the rest of us. If the Republican Party had any brains, it would be banging the drum loudly about this — emphasizing that the poorest Americans are being impoverished through lower wages and increased health care costs, all for the benefit of the minority of employers who are knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

If the Democratic Party had any integrity, it would recognize that part of why we have the staggering 43 million uninsured Americans is illegal immigrants — who make up 15 percent of the uninsured. I don’t hold out much hope that enforcing our immigration laws will dramatically increase wages for the least-skilled Americans, but there are Americans right now who can’t quite afford health insurance — and who probably could if they weren’t competing with the eleven million illegal immigrants that were in the U.S. in 2006.

If the U.S. had severe labor shortages right now, I suppose that I would be a bit more sympathetic to guest worker programs or to a path to legal residence for illegal immigrants. But with the unemployment rate in May hitting 9.4 percent — and the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank warning that it could hit 11 percent before the jobs come back — it is lunacy to consider any strategy that rewards illegal immigrants, either those already here or those considering crossing the border. It is especially crazy when you consider that the Americans with whom illegal immigrants largely compete for jobs are the least likely to have a savings account to help them through months (or years) of unemployment.

The chattering classes don’t seem to ever quite understand this concern about illegal immigration and jobs. I suspect that if English-speaking India were right next door — and newspapers, schools, and universities were run by unscrupulous sorts who didn’t ask too many questions before hiring workers — journalists, teachers, and professors would suddenly understand the concern. Or at least they would shortly after all three professions started paying minimum wage — with no benefits.

Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His most recent book is My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill (2012). He is raising capital for a feature film about the Oberlin Rescue of 1858.
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