No Fruits, No Shirts, No Service

The real-world consequences of closed borders


Reason, April 1995

The last pickup truck pulled away from the parking lot, and the men settled back onto the folding chairs of the little cottage in central San Jose where they wait for offers of day labor. The morning rush was over; nothing to do now but wait until after lunch, when a few more contractors and landscapers might stop by looking for a couple of strong backs for the afternoon.

It was a crisp autumn morning, just three weeks before Californians were to vote on Proposition 187, a measure that some hoped—and others feared—might call a halt to the nightly march of undocumented immigrants across the border from Mexico. Even so, the dozen or so men in the cottage—mojados, wets, illegals, every single one—were surprised that a visitor wanted to talk about 187.

"It doesn't have much to do with us," said Jose Guadalupe, who at 64 years old has crossed the border more times than he can count over the past four decades. "The immigrants have always been here, and they always will be, come what may. We'll come by water, or land, or whatever." The other men nodded in agreement.

But suppose, the visitor said, suppose the Americans built a fence all along the border that was 50 feet tall.

"Not high enough," interjected Guadalupe.

OK, OK, 100 feet high, or 200 feet, or a thousand—however tall it would have to be to really plug that border. What would happen then? The men contemplated this idea in bemused silence. "Well," Guadalupe finally replied in a grave voice, "probably then the Americans would have to put black people back into slavery. Because we're the ones who work in all the fields here, picking lettuce and tomatoes and avocados. Americans don't do it. Unless you guys get people from Japan and Russia, who else is going to do it?"

So far, no American politician has been willing to say that if stopping illegal immigration requires repealing the 13th Amendment, then by God that's what we need to do. But just about anything else goes. National ID cards, computerized federal databases, doctors arresting their patients on the operating table, requiring teachers to rat on their students and encouraging the students to rat on their parents, pitching newborn babies back across the border: The Cold War had nothing on this new battle against immigration.

In fact, Bill Clinton last August officially declared that pulling up the national gangplanks now takes precedence over the final skirmishes of the Cold War. He asked Fidel Castro (in return for what under-the-table promises, we still don't know) to put Cuba's secret police to work stopping Cuban refugees from coming to the United States on rafts. It is as if West Germany, as the Berlin Wall was collapsing, had offered a bounty to East German border guards for every fleeing refugee they could gun down.

Although Proposition 187 and Clinton's creation of prison camps for Haitian and Cuban refugees have put the battle against illegal immigrants in the spotlight, legal immigrants are scarcely more popular. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, the newly triumphant Republican Party's most influential voice on immigration, has promised to introduce a bill slashing the number of legal immigrants 25 percent. And that makes him an immigration dove. Last year a House bill that would cut the number of legal immigrants by 65 percent immediately and 85 percent in the long run attracted 73 co-sponsors from both parties, the single most popular immigration measure introduced during the past Congress. Said Pat Buchanan, the bill's principal champion: "If Republican leaders are frightened by political correctness from doing this, then it is a sign of what is endemic in the Republican Party; it won't touch an issue that somebody may say is evil and hard-hearted."

The most peculiar thing about Buchanan's comment is the implication that it's "politically correct" to support immigration. Quite the contrary: The fashion across the political spectrum, from the tree-huggers at the Sierra Club to Rush Limbaugh's pugnacious "ditto-heads," is to hammer away at immigrants. They steal our jobs. They use up our national resources. They dilute our culture. The timid few who demur are almost universally scorned as ivory-tower knuckleheads who mistake poetry for policy. They aren't out there in the real world. They don't "focus on the immigration influx in practice, as opposed to libertarian theory," as National Review acidly puts it.

But if there's anyone who's neglecting the real world, it's the people who want to cut immigration. Because they don't answer Jose Guadalupe's question. Once we've gotten rid of the immigrants, who is going to pick the lettuce and tomatoes?

A little agricultural math exercise: Of the million or so people who make up the full-time farm work force in the United States—those who work 100 days or more a year—the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 60 percent are foreign-born. (Some labor specialists say as many as half a million may be illegal aliens, the scourge of the scourge to anti-immigrationists.)

Their average wage is around $6.00 an hour. How much would it cost to find native-born Americans to replace them in the fields? Let's say $12 an hour, which most agriculture experts think is a very conservative estimate. That means wages will jump 100 percent.

Multiply the doubling of wages times 20 percent, since economists say labor costs represent about one-fifth of food prices. Assuming that demand holds constant, what it all adds up to is a 40 percent increase in the cost of farm produce. If America's 68 million households spend an average of $10 a week on fruits and vegetables, that's $272 million a week (or, if you prefer, $14.1 billion a year) as the price we pay for running immigrants out of just one small sector of the U.S. economy.

Not that it would work.

"It's not just money that keeps Americans out of those fields," argues Libby Whitley, an agricultural labor consultant who until recently was a labor specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. "I don't know what journalists make. But let's say it's $100,000 a year. OK, I'll give you a nice raise. I'll pay you $110,000 a year to be a migrant farm worker.

"But you'll leave your friends and family. You'll live in a house trailer in an orchard, do your cooking in a group kitchen. And the job will only last for three months. Will you do it?…

"It's not just the pay, it's the nature of the work. It's outdoors, it's often in unpleasant weather, it's physical, it's hard. It hurts your back. It's short term. And you can't even guarantee tenure of work. If there's a bad freeze or a hailstorm just as a crop is ready to be picked, you're not guaranteed anything. You go home empty-handed. That's the nature of nature. And that's the nature of farm work."

Throughout most of American history, there's only been one group willing to consistently take on that kind of labor: Recent immigrants. People with little education, few skills, and only a smattering of English, but who bring broad backs and the conviction that they're building a better life for their families. (There was, of course, one group of people who kept working in fields for generations after they arrived in America. The people Jose Guadalupe made reference to: slaves.)

Whitley has seen them on farms all over the country: the Mexicans toiling in the avocado and watermelon fields in California, the Jamaicans cutting cane and picking apples in the South, Haitians roaming Florida's citrus orchards, the Hmong tribesmen from Laos working in Minnesota dairy farms. "I even visited one county in upstate New York—I'm not going to tell you which one, because they don't need any trouble with INS—where the work force was predominantly illegal Polish immigrants," she says. "They didn't have much education and they didn't speak much English. So they did what immigrants have always done—they went and picked cabbage."

The crops and the skin tones of the people picking them may change from region to region, but Whitley says one thing is always constant: The immigrants are hard workers.

"You will not find many of the farmers I know bashing the foreign worker population," she says. "They will tell you quite honestly that they're excellent workers and decent people. Most farmers will tell you immigrants have a strong commitment to the work ethic. In fact, I'm always trying to hush farmers because they talk about how much better the immigrants are than U.S. workers. I'm always afraid they're going to get charged with some kind of discrimination."

Oh, one other thing: Getting rid of immigrant farm workers, no matter how much it cost American consumers, might not save any jobs for U.S. workers anyway.

"The more expensive labor gets, the more practical it becomes to mechanize," says Dalton Yancey of the Florida Sugar Cane League. His own industry is in the process of shedding the last of 10,000 foreign cane-cutters, in part because the bureaucratic hassles of getting them into the country were becoming too much of a headache. Their work will be turned over to machines. That's the way much of U.S. agriculture is headed.

"Corn and all the feed grains, they can be done mechanically," Yancey notes. "Potatoes, carrots, radishes, red beets, too. Cotton. Pecans can be shaken out of trees, and so can almonds."

Of course, there are some things—mostly fruits, which have to maintain a pretty appearance for the consumer—that can be harvested only by hand. But Yancey doubts that those crops will ever be picked by Americans, either.

"I suppose there's some level of pay at which Americans would be willing to do that work," he says. "The problem is you could fly fruit in from Chile cheaper. I suspect that we'd just do away with those crops in the United States if we somehow lost access to immigrant labor."

To put it another way, immigrant farm workers don't take jobs from anyone. Many of them do work that, if they didn't exist, simply wouldn't be done, at least not in the United States. And agriculture is not the only sector of the economy where it happens.

Some of the work is, arguably, trivial. In Miami, for instance, a lot of recent immigrants set up shop at gas stations, washing cars for $10 apiece and splitting the take with the station owner. Nothing high-tech about it—just a guy with a bucket, a sponge, and a willingness to stand around in wet clothes all day wiping down other people's cars. And if he wasn't there, offering his labor so cheaply, most of his customers would simply wash their own cars in their driveways at home.

"Whenever people voluntarily hire someone to do something, the benefit they receive is called consumer surplus," says Timothy Taylor, managing editor of the American Economic Association's Journal of Economic Perspectives, who is fascinated by the economic reverberations of immigration. "This is one of the reasons so many people in California have gardeners, because immigrants are there to offer the service inexpensively. If the immigrants didn't exist, maybe you wouldn't have had your yard done or your car washed, because it just wouldn't be worth it."

Western civilization could undoubtedly withstand the dirty autos and unkempt lawns that would result if all the immigrant car washers and yard men were eliminated. But there are some consumer-surplus-generated jobs that have more impact on American lives.

"I've had four nannies for my kids, and every single one has been an illegal alien," says Amy, a Washington architect. "The first one was British. The second was from Sierra Leone. There was one from Peru, and the one we have now is a Salvadoran. Every time, I've put an ad in the paper, but I've never interviewed a single American for the job. I'm not sure I've even gotten a response from an American."

Amy pays $6.00 an hour to her nanny, well over minimum wage. "But I'm not terribly surprised that Americans aren't interested in the job," she says. "Taking care of children is hard work. There's no harder work in the world. It's physically difficult and emotionally tough. Children are demanding. You have to keep them clean. Changing diapers is not too much fun. And children can be real bratty. I know my 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter can be a terrible brat. And that's very difficult when you have no blood relationship with them. Also, you've got to keep an eye on them at all times, and if there's more than one, you have to be in more than one place at all times."

As hard as the work is, Amy says that paying significantly more than $6.00 an hour wouldn't make economic sense to her. "I'd probably just quit and stay home, taking care of them myself," she says.

Across the country in San Francisco, her words are echoed by journalist Sharon Noguchi, who recently went back to work after having a baby. She went to a resource center where babysitters register and took down 50 names. All but one turned out to be immigrants. She eventually hired a Salvadoran.

"It's the same for all my friends," Noguchi says. "I'm not sure that wages are the whole story, either. I'm paying $7.00 an hour plus taxes and Social Security, and some of my friends are even paying for health insurance. But Americans just don't apply for the jobs. I think it also has to do with the nature of the work. The hours are odd and somewhat irregular, and there's no future in it—you work a couple of years and then get laid off when the children are older. That's just not desirable work."

Like Amy, Noguchi says that if there were no immigrants working in child care, she would probably have to quit her job and stay home with her baby. "So would a lot of other mothers like me," she declares. "There are a lot of women like me, women who work not because they have to, but because they like to. We're the people who will be the losers."

So will a lot of Americans who work in the garment industry. Perhaps no other U.S. industry is more intimately linked to immigrants than the rag trade. The ready-to-wear industry was founded in New York in the 1880s, when Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe provided most of the labor. As they moved out of production and into management and ownership, they were succeeded by a wave of new Italian immigrants. As European immigration dried up in the 1930s, Puerto Ricans and southern blacks took over the production floors. In the 1960s, Chinese and other Asians poured into the garment factories. These days the jobs are done by new Chinese arrivals along with recent immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean.

"The second generation never stays," says Muzaffar Chisti, the director of the Immigration Project of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. (Though Indian-born, he's a U.S. citizen.) "We have clearly seen a recurring phenomenon, the replacement of one set of workers by another. But it's a replacement, not a displacement….One group of immigrants moves up and out, and another takes its place. That's the whole promise of America.

"That's the whole interesting thing about this immigration debate. Immigration is such a great bargain for this country. Immigrants come to work in what economists call the secondary sectors of the market. The primary sector is the prized jobs, the ones with good wages and upward mobility. The secondary sector is the jobs with low wages, harsh discipline, low mobility. Those are the ones the immigrants take. They do it with the clear promise that it's going to be a better deal for their kids. And it is. The kids of our Chinese immigrants go to Ivy League schools in prodigious numbers."

In some cases it doesn't take a full generation for immigrants to succeed in their new life. Many of the Chinese who arrived in the garment factories in the mid-1960s have already worked their way in the managerial and entrepreneurial classes. "There are 500 to 600 Chinese-owned garment companies in New York," notes Chisti. "In 1960, there were just five. They employ 30,000 workers." Their payroll is more than $200 million.

Anti-immigrant activists would retort, no doubt, that most of those 30,000 jobs go to other immigrants rather than Americans. That's undoubtedly true. But many jobs generated by the garment industry are held by native-born Americans. Packagers, truckers, mid-level managers, and wholesale workers are mostly natives. So are people in countless other jobs that were created by the garment industry, from the assembly-line workers in the plants where sewing machines are built to the pink-collar staffs of the designers who cluster near the garment factories. A 1985 Urban Institute study of the garment industry in Los Angeles, the country's second-biggest, concluded that without Mexican immigrants, the city would have lost 50,000 production jobs, 12,000 management jobs, and 25,000 incidental jobs.

"Immigration not only works for the immigrants, it works for the competitiveness of our country," Chisti says with conviction. "Apparel is still New York's largest industry. New York is still the apparel capital of the world. And it couldn't have been without immigrant labor. The garment industry—collapse may be too strong a word—but the garment industry simply could not continue at anything like its present level. It would lose its principal source of workers. Much of it would move off-shore."

Chisti scoffs at the idea that Americans could take over those jobs, even if the pay could be raised without destroying the industry's competitiveness. "People have the idea garment work is unskilled," he notes. "But if anyone thinks sewing a shirt in less than 20 minutes without cutting off your fingers is unskilled, let him try it. This is a skill, and it's a skill these workers have learned abroad. We don't have programs here to teach people how to sew. Immigrants learn it in informal or family networks. How are you going to replace that?"

And yet the notion persists that immigrants come here and steal jobs, consigning hard-working Americans to the unemployment lines. It is a view that the immigrants find bewildering.

"Listen, señor, what American would want my job?" politely inquires Carlos, an illegal immigrant from Mexico's troubled Chiapas state. Using false documents, he has worked for the past five years in a furniture workshop in downtown Houston. All day long he totes heavy lumber from one side of the room to another for $5.00 an hour. "It's not terrible work, but it's very hard, for very little money," Carlos says. "Americans wouldn't want such a hard job." He's not complaining—in Chiapas there was no work at all—but simply stating the facts. All the other unskilled laborers in the workshop are Mexican immigrants, too.

"People stop by here to offer jobs," says Louise Zwick, who with her husband Mark operates Houston's Casa Juan Diego, a temporary residence for new immigrants. "And you should see the kind of work it is: Heavy, distasteful labor. Pouring tar for roofers in the middle of the summer in 100-degree heat. Or, last fall, after we had terrible floods northwest of Houston, people came around looking for help cleaning that dirty water and stinking mud out of their homes. And the whole reason they came here is that they couldn't find Americans to do that work, but they knew immigrants would."

Luis Moreno learned about dirty jobs the hard way. He arrived in Miami in 1989 with CIA help after spending eight years as a commander in the contras, the American-backed rebels who fought Nicaragua's Marxist Sandinista regime. Moreno had a distinguished combat record—after a mortar accident blew off his right arm, he learned to fire a rifle with his left and continued to lead contra troops inside Nicaragua—but he found that setting ambushes and blowing up bridges were relatively undervalued skills in the U.S. economy. And although popular legend has it that the CIA set up ex-contras with luxury condos and country-club memberships, all Moreno got was a work permit and a brisk shake of his left hand.

"I was a man with no way out," he recalls. "I had one arm. I didn't speak English. But I couldn't go back to my country, because the communists were still in control. And I had two children to support. So I had to do whatever was necessary." He took a job as a guard at a security company.

"Lots of Nicaraguans were coming to Miami then—that was when it looked like the Sandinistas would stay forever—and I would say that 90 percent of the guards at my company were Nicaraguans like me," he remembers. "And the rest were from other countries in Central America. We were all immigrants. Why? Because we were people who didn't speak English. And people who don't speak English in America don't get treated very well."

The company sent him to various sites during the three years Moreno worked as a guard. But they were all pretty much the same: warehouses in seedy neighborhoods near the city's crime-riddled ghettos. "The places were all difficult assignments," he says. "There was never a toilet, never a place to get a drink of water. I was always outside, in the rain, in the mosquitoes." But that wasn't the worst of it. The worst was standing around unarmed in the dark at 2 a.m., waiting for a crackhead with a 9mm Glock to show up to break into the place.

"Really, we weren't much more than human burglar alarms, there to call for help on the walkie-talkie if something went wrong," Moreno says. "I remember one night when I was guarding a clothing warehouse. And I saw someone breaking in. So I called my supervisor, and he called the owner. If the owner called the police, and it turned out I was wrong, and there was no burglar, then he would have to pay some kind of a fee to the police department. So the owner said, 'Well, there's nothing too valuable inside there. Don't call the police. Just tell the guard to try to catch the guy when he comes out.' So I stayed there all night, with no gun, waiting for this guy—maybe he had a machine gun, for all I know—to come back out. I had plenty of combat experience, so I wasn't scared, exactly. But I thought about my children. What would happen to them if I were killed? Who would take care of them?

"I was getting paid $4.25 an hour for that. And you ask me why there were no Americans working at my company? What American would risk his life to save another man's shirts for $4.25 an hour? Only an immigrant would do that, because he can't do anything else. Once in a while an American came in to apply for a job. And they always got hired on the spot to be a supervisor, because they could speak English, and the supervisors had to speak English to deal with clients and police and insurance companies. The boss loved it when Americans came in, but that didn't happen very often."

Even so, Moreno never complained to his family about his job. Who would have listened? His wife came home squinting and sore from a garment factory where she sewed sleeves on shirts for five cents apiece. His arthritic 57-year-old father wheezed from the perpetual cold he got working at a warehouse, unloading 50-pound boxes of frozen chicken from trucks under Miami's tropical sun, then carting them inside to a meat freezer. One brother could barely drag himself into the house at the end of the day after lugging cement blocks around construction sites in the 90-degree, 90-percent humidity heat. And still another brother was rarely seen.

"Ahhh, he had the worst job of all," Moreno chuckles. "He worked for $100 a week guarding a pigpen on the edge of the Everglades. Have you ever been out there? He had to protect those pigs from all the crazy people who run around in the Everglades. Every night the mosquitoes fell onto him like a cloud. And the snakes. You don't want to know about the snakes….

"It was hard work, his job. My wife's job too. All of us did hard work. But people do it all around the world. That's the kind of job people who don't have education get."

Moreno is getting an education. In between his guard shifts, he took junior-college English classes. His language skills improved to the point where he was able to get a job as a courier shuttling documents between downtown law firms. He has 90 hours of credit toward an accounting degree, and someday he hopes to open a bookkeeping service.

Meanwhile, he stops by the security company every once in a while to say hello. "All the Nicaraguans are gone," he observes. "They've gotten better jobs. All the guards now are Haitians."

When Luis Moreno and Carlos say they didn't take their jobs from Americans, they won't get any argument from the vast majority of economists. Study after study shows that immigrants are at worst a break-even proposition in terms of creating jobs and paying for the government services they consume.

Perhaps the most dramatic was a study by Princeton economist David Card, who looked at the impact of the 1980 Mariel boatlift on Miami employment. That was the year Castro, in an ill-considered fit of pique, briefly opened Cuba's doors to permit free emigration. In just a couple of months, 125,000 refugees flooded into Miami, boosting the city's work force 7 percent overnight.

Card tracked Miami's unemployment statistics for six years after the boatlift, comparing them with those of half a dozen Sunbelt cities with similar economies. What he found was—nothing. Miami's economy swallowed the newcomers without a trace, like a boa constrictor gulping down a pig.

"You couldn't find any effect of the boatlift on employment in any part of the economy," Card says. "Because most of the people who came during Mariel were unskilled workers with little education, even the most optimistic person might have expected some impact at the lower end of the economy. But when I checked on the statistics for unskilled black or non-Hispanics, you couldn't find anything at all." Some workers were undoubtedly displaced, of course, but they apparently were able to find other jobs very quickly.

Although Card admits to some wonder at the speed and totality with which the Mariel refugees were absorbed, he wasn't surprised by the general principle that economies expand to accommodate newcomers.

"When I read letters to the editor, it's plain that most people seem to think that the number of jobs is fixed," he says. "So, in their view, if you add one more worker to the population of a city, it just means that that guy will have to fight with somebody else for an existing job. It's an extremely narrow and very non-economic view of the world….If you look across cities, the number of jobs is proportional to the number of people in the city. The fact that more people have moved to New York than to Atlanta does not mean that a lot of people have been thrown out of work in New York. What it means is that there are 10 times more jobs in New York than there are in Atlanta."

What happens is that every new person who comes to New York—or to the United States—looking for work is also a consumer. He wants a job, but he also has to buy shoes, eat breakfast, and rent an apartment. The more consumer demand for goods and services, the more jobs are created to fill it. As British writer John Toland noted during an influx of foreign Jews in 1714: "We deny not that there will be more tailors and shoemakers; but there will also be more suits and shoes made than before." Were Toland around today, he might point out that Florida's unemployment rate is lower than the national average, even though it has the third-largest immigrant population of all the states.

Who is going to pick the lettuce and tomatoes? has a companion question. It is, Who is going to design the computers?

"The United States would not be remotely dominant in high-technology industries without immigrants," flatly declares writer George Gilder, who chronicles international competition along the information superhighway. "We are now utterly dominant in all key information technology domains. And at every important high-tech company in America, the crucial players, half of them or more, are immigrants.

"I've spent 15 years now going from one of these companies to another. And always, when you get past the sales people and the public-relations people, in the back you meet the guy who actually invented the product. And he's always from India or Vietnam or someplace like that.

"You exclude immigrants from our high-tech industries and what you get is Europe, where they have no important computer or semiconductor company now after 20 years of focusing on information technologies. There's been a steady stream of heavily funded European economic community industrial policies focused on semiconductors and computers, and Europe has ended this period without a single important computer or semiconductor company….In fact, many of the key contributors to the U.S. industry came here from Europe: Eastern Europe, Italy, Belgium, Britain, France. Where would we be if we hadn't welcomed them?"

Does Gilder exaggerate? Consider the history of a single company: Intel, the $10-billion Silicon Valley company that is the world's largest producer of semiconductors. It offers a striking example of the creative forces unleashed by bringing together talented, ambitious people from all over the world (including the United States) and allowing them to share ideas in an open, entrepreneurial economy.

1968: The company is founded by two Americans who are quickly joined by Andrew Grove, a 31-year-old Hungarian engineer who fled his country 12 years earlier as Soviet tanks poured in. Grove, who left Hungary with $20 in his pocket, will eventually rise to be Intel's CEO.

1969: Intel scores its first big success with the MOS chip, which becomes the semiconductor industry's favorite technology. The team that develops the chip is spearheaded by Les Vadasz, a Hungarian who will eventually become an Intel vice president.

1970: Intel introduces the DRAM chip, which will soon be one of the fundamental building blocks of virtually all computers. Les Vadasz plays a key role on the development team.

1971: Dov Frohman, an Intel engineer from Israel, invents the EPROM chip, which retains its memory even when the power is turned off. It quickly becomes indispensable in everything from telecommunications equipment to automobiles.

1974: Intel unveils the 8080, the first general-purpose microprocessor. Of the three top people on the development team, one (Federico Faggin) is Italian and one (Masatoshi Shima) is Japanese.

1979: The company produces the 8086 chip, which, with slight modification, will become the brains of the first IBM personal computer. The team that engineers the chip is headed by Jean-Claude Cornet, a French immigrant.

1993: Intel introduces the state-of-the-art Pentium chip. The Pentium project is managed by Vinod Dham of India. And one of the chip's two principal architects is another Indian, Avtar Saini.

So where would Intel be without immigrants? The company's communications director, Howard High, just shakes his head at the question; he can't imagine. But he does know one thing: Intel will continue to profit from imported brainpower. If U.S. law prohibits it from arriving on boats or planes, it will slip in through telephone modems.

"This talk about changing immigration law is not going to impact where the jobs go in high-tech industries," he says. "You can live where you want to live, or have to live, and if you're good, we're going to hire you. There aren't a lot of people who specialize in the kinds of skills we need. So if you live in Tel Aviv, or Manila, or Beijing, or Albuquerque, we're going to hire you and move the necessary facilities to you….

"For $4,000, we can put 150 million instructions per second on the desktop of anybody in the world. If people don't want to live here, or can't live here, they don't have to. With computers and telephones, the border issue just kind of goes away."

Not everyone is quite so sanguine about the possible effect of immigration restrictions on America's high-tech industries. "It's true that a lot of computer programming can be done anywhere in the world," says Nathan Rosenberg, a Stanford economist who studies the history of technology. "They do that now. A number of American firms, Motorola and some others, have large networks of computer programmers in India and elsewhere.

"But if we're talking about more highly engineered and creative work—design work, sophisticated research, the bright big ideas—it's a more synergistic situation involving face-to-face interaction among people. The point is that people need to talk to one another, react directly to one another, and communicate in ways that don't seem to work nearly as productively when you're communicating through a wire or a fiber-optic line. The key word is synergy, a creative response to other people's ideas or statements, an energy that results when people are in the same room looking at one another." That synergy enriches not only U.S. companies but, by sparking innovations, the entire world.

Rosenberg is frankly worried about what will happen if Congress passes draconian anti-immigration laws.

"About 60 percent of all students earning advanced degrees in American universities in engineering today are foreign," he observes. "We have benefited—and we continue to benefit immensely—from this flow of foreign talent. For example, Indian immigrants have played a remarkable role in exploiting higher mathematics for purposes of industrial innovation.

"A very large fraction of the foreigners who come to America to study and take advanced degrees in engineering and science stay here. When you combine that with the fact that, for whatever reason, American students are simply not going into many areas of engineering that are relevant to industrial innovation, it's obvious we need these foreigners. We need them very badly….

"It seems to me that the American high-tech industry will suffer, will suffer tremendously, if these anti-immigration measures go into effect."

The prominence of immigrants at Intel is no fluke. Some 15,000 Asian immigrants are employed in Silicon Valley, roughly a quarter of the work force. And the phenomenon is not limited to California. At IBM's facility in Yorktown Heights, New York, a quarter of the researchers are Asians. At AT&T's Bell Labs in New Jersey, 40 percent of the researchers in the Communications Sciences Research Wing were born outside the United States.

In Hawthorne, New York, 60 percent of International Paper Company's engineering department is composed of immigrants. Du Pont Merck Pharmaceutical in Wilmington, Delaware, regularly brings out new products developed by immigrants. One example: the anti-hypertensive drug Losartan, created by a team of scientists that included two Chinese and a Lithuanian. At Phoenix Laser Systems in San Jose, California, founder Alfred Sklar, a Cuban refugee, is pioneering laser technologies that could eventually cure several forms of blindness.

High-tech is not the only expertise that immigrants bring with them. They also bring along knowledge of the way businesses organize and market themselves in other parts of the world, which can be an invaluable source of innovation.

There are few hotter companies in America than Kingston Technology, which designs and manufactures memory upgrades for virtually every kind of computer. Located in Fountain Valley, just south of Los Angeles, Kingston regularly hosts awestruck reporters from the nation's financial press. Fortune labeled it "the paradigmatic growth machine," and it was at the top of Inc. magazine's 1992 list of the country's fastest-growing privately held companies. No wonder: From its founding in 1987 through 1992, Kingston's sales increased a sizzling 368 percent. Last year they hit $800 million.

And who is behind this classic American success story? Well…two Taiwanese immigrants, David Sun and John Tu. And a stroll through the company's semi-chaotic two-story headquarters ("management by shout and grab," Kingston people call it) is like a visit to a real-life version of Disneyland's "It's A Small World" ride. American salesmen consult with Chinese engineers who chatter at Vietnamese testers who banter with Hispanic assemblers. Kingston's 1,300 employees are divided roughly equally among the four groups.

"Southern California is at the forefront of today's immigration," says marketing director Ron Seide. "The same thing that made the United States strong at the turn of the century—the flow of immigrants that built the east and the industrial midwest—are part and parcel of Southern California's success. Without immigrant influence, their ideas, their intellectual capital, the high-tech industry—which is the best thing California has going for it—wouldn't exist."

Seide (who hails from Cleveland and is sometimes referred to as "the Anglo interface" by his polyglot colleagues) recalls that he was stunned by the sheer energy radiating from Kingston's work floor on his first day in the job. He has no doubt that it is generated by the immigrants.

"You've got to have a lot of gumption, get-up-and-go, guts, whatever you want to call it, to pack up your belongings, jump into steerage, and start a new life 5,000 miles away in a country where you don't speak the language," he observes. "It's a self-selecting process. And then they bring it into the workplace. It's infectious."

Kingston works at the center of a tightly knit cluster of independent companies, sharing capital, know-how, and markets. Kingston designs memory boards, which are manufactured by a partner in Taiwan, assembled by another partner down the road in Orange County, and sold by distributors all over the world.

"We operate as a virtual corporation," Seide says. "That's very central to the way Asian companies are structured. And no American could have imagined it. This company is literally an immigrant's dream."

So: Who is going to pick the lettuce and tomatoes? Who is going to design the computers? And, of course, the questions don't stop there. Without Ethiopians, who will be the parking attendants in San Jose? Without Haitians, who will drive Miami's taxis? Without Filipino nurses and Pakistani doctors, who will care for the ill in inner-city and rural hospitals? Without Mexicans, who will build houses in North Carolina? Yes, North Carolina.

"If it were not for the Latin American population here, we'd be in a terrible fix," says the vice president of a large Raleigh construction company. "Unemployment is down under 3 percent here and has been for several years. And when we advertise for workers, we don't get Americans, we get Mexicans. I don't know where they come from. But I do know they believe in a day's work for a day's pay, and we like that."

In a sad indication of today's political climate, the construction man doesn't want his name used: "I don't care to get caught up in any political backlash over anything. There are some things that are politically sensitive, and one of them is immigration. I saw what happened in California with that proposition." In the United States these days, it is potentially controversial to say that you like your workers, if they happen to have been born in the wrong place.

And in the United States soon, it may become more expensive to buy a shirt or build a home, more difficult to hire a babysitter, next to impossible to operate a vegetable farm. Office rents will rise along with janitors' wages; so will the cost of a dinner out, as bus boys, waitresses, and cooks get more expensive. Maids and gardeners may become a thing of the past, along with career women. High-tech research and development will stagnate. Who could have guessed that "pragmatism" would be so extravagant?

Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin's latest book, Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison, co-authored with Ana Rodriguez, will be published this spring by St. Martin's Press.