Lawns and Borders

Immigration is a feminist issue.


If there is one thing that the pundits at National Review want for the American people, it is self-sufficiency in lawn care.

"Mow Your Own Lawn," reads the header of an immigration-focused blog post by John Derbyshire. In a published diary of his travels in Alabama, he titles a section, "Alabamians Mow Their Lawns." In a 2003 column , Rich Lowry comments, "It's time to tell middle-class families across the country, from California to the suburbs of New York: Mow your own damn lawns." As the debate about immigration continues, the cri ducoeur from our conservative press is unwavering: Get out the grass trimmer, and do it for America.

This is a populist, protectionist demand, and hardly confined to The Corner. Any blog post that mentions illegal immigration will be followed by a virulent comment thread, chiefly populated by directives to "mow your own lawn," "take care of your own kids," and "do your own housework." A recent cover story in The American Conservative plays into this romanticized, tribal self-sufficiency, conjuring a white-washed vision of family farms, streetcars, modest dress, and a generally Amish-leaning populace. One thing we know: Mexicans are not Amish.

The implication is that rich Americans, like the stuff of Yukio Mishima's nightmares, have become lazy, decadent, and precious, too busy perfecting their down dogs, perhaps, to realize that they are poisoning their culture. But self-sufficiency comes at a huge cost, and that cost is not borne equally across genders.

Self-sufficient households, quite simply, are homes that embrace separate spheres. Where there is an unpaid laborer to do the cooking, the cleaning, the babysitting, domestic services needn't be outsourced. The keep-'em-out, mow-your-own-lawn ideology falls hardest not on the traditional purveyors of lawn care, but on the traditional purveyors of childcare—mothers.

Women have done much to free themselves from the burdens of domestic labor, but as study after study makes clear, it isn't because men are picking up the slack. Instead, women have been fantastically successful at seeking solutions in the market, from center-based daycare to increasingly affordable cleaning services. We send out our laundry and order takeout for dinner. It's not that we've equalized such burdens, but that we've commodified them.

This is where the populist view—the one where free labor markets only benefit obese cigar-smoking Republican business owners—starts to fall apart. As any proponent of universal daycare will inform you, affordable child care is not a rich woman's issue; the Zoe Bairds and Caitlin Flannigans of the world are not representative. According to a recent report (pdf) by the Department of Human Development at Cornell University, over sixty percent of children under 5 are in some form of non-parental care on a regular basis. Single mothers are more likely than most to seek informal, unregulated child care arrangements, where stay-at-home mothers charge a fee to watch other people's children during the day.

Women's labor force participation is widely acknowledged to be sensitive to the price of child care in the United States, where a thriving private market helps stem the call for universal taxpayer-subsidized preschool and daycare. Child care prices are obviously sensitive to the supply of child care providers. And while the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep a tally on the number of immigrants involved in child care, it is precisely the kind of low-skill domestic labor—much of it taking place within unregulated, informal relationships in women's homes—immigrant populations traditionally seek.

A March study (pdf) by the Urban Institute noted a pronounced decline in the low-wage native workforce, and the decline was more pronounced in women than men. Between 2000 and 2005, the number and share of low-wage women in the native labor force declined by 1.5 million, both because women are becoming better educated and moving onto higher paying jobs, and because they are dropping out of the workforce. Immigrants, legal and illegal, are helping to offset the change. These findings, and others, conclude the researchers "highlight the growing importance of immigrant workers in the lower-skilled U.S. labor force."

The terms of the immigration debate have largely turned against undocumented workers, and "comprehensive" immigration reform is likely to be heavy on penalties. This should worry anyone who frets about the wage gap, which has long had more to do with motherhood than womanhood. The gap between mothers and non-mothers is wider than that between men and women, suggesting that the real income-sapping factor is kids. It is possible that if day care prices increase, that gap will widen.

Having children is a choice, of course; some motherhood gap is unavoidable, and the humanitarian reasons to support a liberalized immigration policy should be far more compelling than the strictly feminist ones. There is no development policy, no feasible amount of foreign aid, no poundage of fair trade coffee that will help someone from a developing country to a better life more than opening the door to a better economy, instantly doubling or tripling the value of their labor. But as American women look to solidify the gains they've made, through the Equal Rights Amendment and other measures, they might ask where their most tangible gains have been.

We could mow our own lawns. We could also make our own candlesticks and churn our own butter. The question to ask isn't why we don't live in a more self-sufficient America, but why Americans—and especially women—would ever want to.

Kerry Howley is an associate editor of Reason.

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