Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Being Practical About Immigration

New York Times columnist, John Tierney wrote the following op-ed piece that appeared in the Saturday, May 27, 2006 edition of the paper.

Tierney takes such a "on the street" approach to the controversial subject of immigration that I am reprinting
his essay in its entirety. Some of what he says and reports disturbs me, especially in regard to the assumptions being made about the wages of those with jobs in our bulging service sector. People who work should reasonably expect to earn a living wage. But that is likely a discussion for a future post.

Tierney's thoughts and those reported here deserve our attention. Tell me what you think. One thing is for sure, the immigration challenge is not going away in this nation or in our major urban areas.

A link to the essay is also provided at the end of this post.

No Más Immigrants, No More Care?

Fauna Kane is a Republican in Southern California. Oddly enough, she is not furious about immigration.

She is not sporting the latest fashion statement, the yellow "No más!" button that Republican legislators wore at the state Capitol on Thursday night to welcome President Vicente Fox of Mexico. She has not been calling radio shows to denounce the traitors in the U.S. Senate who voted to liberalize immigration.

At age 95, Mrs. Kane takes the long view. When she hears members of the House opposing a guest-worker program and vowing to slow the flow of immigrants, she wonders what lawmakers are contemplating for their old age.

"Maybe the congressmen think their pensions are so good they'll be able to buy whatever they want when they're old," she says. "But if we didn't have foreigners, we wouldn't have anybody taking care of us."

Mrs. Kane has a room in Holiday Villa, an assisted-living home in Santa Monica with two dozen nurse's aides, cooks, housekeepers and other workers born in Mexico, El Salvador, Belize and the Philippines. The only native-born Americans are the director and one assistant.

"I'm the minority here," says the director, Mary Ann Anderson. "We depend on immigrants — legal immigrants — to provide care, and we're going to need more and more of them as the baby boomers age."

This is not the perspective of members of Congress up for re-election. They've focused on the immediate costs of immigration for city and state governments in border states like California, which do indeed foot the bill for providing services to low-income immigrants and education for their children.

But immigrants' children have a habit of growing up to become workers — and workers will be in demand as the baby boomers retire. The boomers haven't taken the traditional precaution for old age, which is to have lots of children.

The fertility rate of native-born Americans in many states, including California, has fallen to near or below the replacement rate, as it has in European countries that are struggling to support their aging populations. Worried European leaders have been trying to reverse the decline by offering subsidies to parents, like the hefty payments announced this month by President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

But America is in better shape than Europe. Its population is still growing robustly, partly because of the arrival of adult immigrants, and partly because immigrants don't have to be bribed to have children. Their higher fertility rate helps offset the natives', bringing the overall national rate just about up to the replacement level.

Some "no más" natives complain that the country can't absorb immigrants the way it once could. But these natives also expect Social Security and Medicare to sustain them during their retirement. Now that birthrates are low and retirees are living so long, America needs immigrants more than ever.

If there were a moratorium on legal immigration, the Social Security deficit would rise by nearly a third over the next 50 years, according to Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy. Even illegal immigrants help the system's finances, because when they give employers bogus Social Security numbers, the taxes paid on their behalf end up in the trust fund.

With fewer immigrants, we'd have to either raise taxes or cut retiree benefits. And who would do the work they're now doing?

It's been argued that they could be replaced by paying higher wages to natives or by automating the jobs. But those higher salaries would be a serious strain on public agencies as well as on retired baby boomers with fixed incomes. And there are a lot of jobs that can't be done by robots, like caring for the elderly residents at Holiday Villa.

"If it weren't for the help from the people here, I think I'd be a bag lady," Mrs. Kane says. "I have people I can call in an emergency, but you can't count on your friends or family for little things like opening a tube of toothpaste or getting you to the doctor."

As the population ages, it's going to get harder to find young people to do those jobs unless the Republicans in the House go along with the Senate's plan to add legal immigrants. But Mrs. Kane can understand why those Republicans aren't worried about their golden years.

"They're not thinking ahead, but nobody does," she says. "I never thought this would happen to me. You think the good Lord's going to take care of you."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


jocelyn said...

That's an interesting prospective. I'm really not sure what I think about the whole immigration debate. Since I'm living abroad, I haven't been able to participate in many of the discussions or to keep up with all the current debates. I've depended on your blog and others to help keep me aprised of the situation at home so I'm not totally uninformed when I return! Thanks for introducing another angle. It's one I haven't heard yet.

RC said...

I am not a scholar, nor the son of one. I am just bothered by the reality that there is a very legal way to come the this country. It is almost as if people are saying that laws don't matter. I wonder what would happen if the large number of illegal immigrants were not here. Would simple supply and demand drive up wages to a point where legal residents would be motivated to do whatever the job was? I am proud that our country is a place of great diversity, and I encourage legal immigration, and I don't know what to do with the large number of undocumented alians. (That hurt to use that description, but I thought I would streach myself.) I need to do some research, but during the great waves of primarily European immigration of the nineteenth century did they come legally? I would also love to hear more from the multitudes of hispanics who came to this country legally. I can't imagine them being pleased with the almost total disregard for law among the undocumented workers.. My son is working this Summer for a nursery. He does the dirty work like planting flowers and spreading mulch and such like. He is doing it because it pays 10 bucks an hour and he get overtime. As I said before, I really do want to come to a better understanding about controversial topics, and I don't believe that being conservative disqualifies a person from being compasionate. Keep inviting people to the discussion. Totally off the topic, but what was Ann Colter thinking when she made her dumb comments on the "Today Show?"

Larry James said...

Thanks, as always, RC for your comments.

I think you are onto something when you ask would supply and demand drive wages up in the service sector if there were no undocumented workers in the US. I expect the answer is yes if the demand for labor were the same. Many who post here argue that such an increase in labor costs would cause employers to scale back, drive prices for goods and services up, etc. So, we can continue to debate all of that in our spare time.

The fact is the undocumented workers are here, numbering in the millions. You mention the "multitudes of Hispanics who came here legally." Many did arrive legally, but in the case of Mexican immigrants the quotos for that nation are so low that most Mexicans arrive without documentation. Our immigration numbers for other nations who provide more skilled labor are higher. Other Latin American nations have always faced immigration policy in the US that has been largely tied to our political needs south of the border. We allowed immigrants from enemy states but not from our allies.

It is complicated, isn't it? And we are set up for the problem.

I believe we need an entirely new way of looking at the Southern border. We need a clear guest worker program. And we need to focus on employers rather than labor. Just my two cents worth.

I know one thing: there is no practical way to send over 12 million people home without major disruptions throughout the entire system.

John Greenan said...


During the great wave of European immigration to the United States, the question "legal or illegal" simply had no meaning. No laws were in effect governing European immigration.

Fairly early on, there were, however, laws governing the importation of slaves, and soon after that the Exclusionary Laws against the immigration of Asians and others.