When they’re debating immigration policy, Americans do like to cling to their favorite myths.
This one has quite a following: “Workplace raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement intrinsically benefit the U.S. labor market by removing illegal workers and forcing employers to hire American workers as replacements by paying higher wages.” The sidecar argument is this: “There are scores of U.S. workers who are waiting on the sidelines, champing at the bit to do the hardest, dirtiest, most dangerous jobs society has to offer if only they could get employers to pay a fair and livable wage.”
While not always pleasing to the eye, especially when families are split up and children are left behind, workplace raids are an appropriate, necessary, and defensible way of combating illegal immigration by targeting the source of the problem: the employer.
Yet these raids are not a magic elixir that cures all that ails the U.S. workforce. When immigration agents storm a meatpacking plant in Iowa, a chicken-processing company in Arkansas, or a peach orchard in California and haul off hundreds of illegal immigrant workers, it can change the workforce, the wage structure, even the working conditions. If employers have to pay higher wages to replace illegal workers, they might indeed attract U.S. workers — for a time. That was the point of a recent article in USA Today, which suggested that U.S. workers automatically benefit from immigration raids.
Still, at the end of the day, workplace raids don’t change who we are as a people. Nor do they change our values, our upbringing, and our relationship to work. Before long, replacement workers will recall why they didn’t take those jobs in the first place. That is, because they’re hard, dirty, or dangerous. And before long, many of them will quit. And the employer will be back at square one, trying to entice workers who don’t really want to work there — at any wage.
That’s exactly what happened a few years ago in Stillmore, Georgia, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. In 2006, after a raid by immigration agents, a chicken-processing company called Crider Inc. lost three-fourths of its workers. To recruit replacements, Crider raised pay at the plant to $9 an hour and offered free rooms in a company-owned dormitory. Crider even offered some workers free transportation. At first, American employees lined up for the jobs.
But the story didn’t end there. Immigration restrictionists would like to pretend it did, but there was a second chapter. According to the Journal, the plant was soon struggling with retention issues, lower productivity, and disputes over working conditions. Many of the new workers left.
Georgia Southern University professor Debra Sabia told the Journal: “If you gave a survey to Americans and asked them where they’d want to work, a slaughterhouse would not be on the list. These are not jobs we aspire for our children to take.”
She was right on the money. These are not choice jobs. Even in a recession, dairy owners, for instance, say they’re still not being flooded with applications from U.S. workers for jobs milking cows. Yet, choice or not, someone has to do these thankless jobs. And “someone” often turns out to be illegal immigrants.
We cannot condone such activity. That’s why we have to keep raiding businesses and deporting those who break our laws, even if many of them will come back again when the economy improves. But that’s the easy part. It’ll take more than handcuffs and one-way bus trips across the border to get our own people up to snuff and ready to take the kinds of grueling jobs that their parents and grandparents did long ago but that they have spent their whole lives consciously avoiding.
Take it from the grandson of farm workers who makes his living pecking at keyboards and speaking into microphones and television cameras — and who has the soft hands to prove it.