America’s Criminal Immigration Policy
Jesse James DeConto’s article “America’s Criminal Immigration Policy” (February) was a cut above the usual plea for open borders and unlimited cheap labor. Legal H2A workers in agriculture and forestry do indeed work hard for their wages.
DeConto describes the hardships endured by these seasonal nonimmigrant workers, yet the emotional hardship of the worker leaving his family behind when he goes home in December is a hardship of his own making: He made the choice to bring his wife to the U.S. illegally, and they chose to have children here. I think economists call these choices “tradeoffs.”
The H2A visa program for seasonal workers is plainly not an immigration program. Most of the hardships described by the author stem from expecting the same privileges for seasonal workers as are enjoyed by legal immigrants. If the number of such visas were increased, the workers would still be under these restrictions.
Strangely, the article glosses over the matter of the wages paid to these workers. What do they earn? How does the average wage of the legal H2A worker on these Christmas tree farms differ from that of the illegal workers? How do wages today compare to 20 years ago, before illegal workers became the mainstay of the growers? It would be a good thing if journalists and academics were more curious about the relationship between the black market in cheap foreign labor and the decline in wages in low-skilled jobs over the past decade.
Expansion of the visas available under the H2A program is feasible if agribusiness proponents will give up attempts to link that expansion to the right to a green card and a “path to citizenship.” The attempt to guarantee green cards to all seasonal workers is not an economic proposal; it is a political one.
Sheep ranchers in Colorado and the West have a big problem with the shepherds they bring to the U.S. on contract from Peru and Portugal because many disappear within a year to seek other work, breaking those contracts. Why is no one writing stories about the hardships imposed on these ranchers by the lack of enforcement of the H2A visa?
There is a market solution to labor shortages: Employers can raise wages to attract more workers. Alternatively, employers can invest in new technology to develop more efficient production methods. Instead, the present nonenforcement of labor laws encourages employers to lower wages to the point where only foreign workers will do the job. Then they lobby for removing all restrictions on the supply of foreign workers.
In the 1960s, when the Bracero program was ended, tomato growers in California predicted a catastrophe and $5-per-pound prices. The growers turned to technology, and somehow we still harvest tomatoes. Without an increase in legal H2A workers or “regularization” (read: amnesty) for illegal workers already here, we might discover that Christmas trees can be harvested in less labor-intensive ways. But even if not, I do not see in the U.S. Constitution a consumer right to a $25 Christmas tree—or a $9 car wash or a $39 motel room.
Our immigration laws do not make people criminals; they choose to do that themselves. Unless we totally abolish all borders, immigration laws are necessary, and the distinction between immigrants and nonimmigrant temporary workers must be maintained.
Public officials take an oath of office to enforce the laws, immigration laws included. I think the legal immigrants who come here are seeking not only job opportunities but also a country where, unlike in much of the Third World they are fleeing from, that oath is taken seriously.
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.)
Jesse James DeConto replies: Rep. Tancredo trumpets a “market solution” to U.S. labor shortages. What he fails to acknowledge is that the market has already spoken. Despite the challenges posed by current immigration policies, the market has brought workers and employers together. The congressman seems to presume that changing the law is some kind of anti-market plot. In fact, expanding legal immigration opportunities is nothing more than a prudent political response to market forces.
The question is not whether or not to allow more immigration. Immigrants will come from Mexico and Central America as long as it makes economic sense for them. They will do whatever it takes, risking their lives and their families’ livelihoods to improve their lot in life. The real question is, what does the United States owe them in exchange for the labor we want done?
As to Tancredo’s contention that immigrant workers lower wages for native-born labor: The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there were 7 million unemployed workers in the United States in the month of January. Estimates of undocumented workers in the U.S. range from 10 million to 16 million. Assuming that all 7 million unemployed Americans were willing to relocate in order to fill jobs hypothetically vacated by illegal workers, many of which are located in remote rural areas such as the North Carolina mountains, they would still replace only about half of the current work force. The current pay range for undocumented North Carolina Christmas tree workers starts at $6 an hour, almost twice the starting pay from 20 years ago, when growers started hiring immigrant workers.