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April 08, 2006

Immigrate! Immigrate! Dance to the Music

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

A couple weeks ago on John Edwards' One America Blog, I posted a bunch of interesting facts about immigration, culminating in a quotation from Plumer. People there liked them, and so did Laura Turner (who said I 'wonked out', which I guess is like rocking out, except that it's less likely to make people dance and throw undergarments). So, here's the part of the post after the obligatory shoutouts:

-In the last few years, the government has completely lost interest in fining businesses for immigration violations.  Lots of amazing statistics on this are cited by Ezra Klein here.  For instance, in 1999, 417 businesses were fined for hiring illegal immigrants.  In 2004, only 3 businesses were fined.  This is despite the fact that the easiest way to crack down on the hiring of illegal immigrants would be to attack the businesses that hire them.  Just let the immigration authorities look at the Social Security records, and check if businesses are paying Social Security taxes for people who aren't known taxpayers.  This would be a lot more effective than improving border security (we've increased funding for that tenfold since 1986, with no effect) or trying to find everyone and deport them (which would cost an insane amount of money, and would be really hard to do).

-This brings me to the Social Security issue.  The chief actuary for Social Security estimates that three-fourths of illegal immigrants pay Social Security taxes.  When the Social Security Administration makes its projections for the future, it relies on illegal immigrants paying into the system.  Since the law prevents them from ever taking anything out, they're basically free money for Social Security.

-People shouldn't regard America as too crowded to take in new immigrants.  Our population density is lower than the world average, and population growth is the slowest it has ever been since the Great Depression.  Our economy needs more new young people (among other things, for the purpose of keeping Social Security afloat) and if our birth rate isn't high enough, young people from elsewhere can make up the difference.  While illegal immigrants are a better deal for Social Security than legal immigrants, legal ones will still help to keep the system afloat through the baby boomers' retirement.

-Opponents of amnesty for illegal immigrants often say that amnesty would be unfair to those trying to achieve citizenship legally, because it'd let illegal immigrants "cut in line."  But as it turns out, there's really no line for uneducated Mexicans without family or employment connections to stand in if they want to get US citizenship.  The only way for these people to get citizenship is to apply to the government's Diversity Lottery, which grants citizenship to fifty thousand people each year, out of nearly seven million applicants (Thanks to Nick and the very clever Ursako, whom I forgot to credit on the Edwards blog, for pointing this out).  If you applied for citizenship every year of your life, you'd be lucky to get it before you were a hundred years old.  And since it's a lottery, there's no guarantee that you'd ever be picked.  So I really can't take the "cutting in line" criticism seriously.

-While studies differ on this, there's evidence that the presence of lots of immigrants decreases native-born workers' wages.  High-school dropouts are the most powerfully affected - immigration can decrease their wages by as much as 7.4%.

-Remittances (the economists' term for money that immigrants send back home to their families) are widely regarded as one of the most effective means for overcoming the horrific poverty that afflicts poor countries.  If you like, you can read our current Fed Chair's speech on the issue.  I've seen this in action, personally - my dad came from a farming village in India, and after becoming a scientist here, he sent a lot of money back.  My relatives' standard of living is strongly improved - they have clean water, electricity, and a toilet, which they almost certainly wouldn't have without his help.  There's enough money for the kids to go to good schools, and to buy medicine for sick people.

Having said all this, let me make a few comments.  It's absolutely essential that Democrats not see the immigration debate as one that pits illegal immigrants against native-born American workers.  There's a third side to think about here - the businesses that profit off of cheap illegal labor.  When you talk about cracking down on illegal immigration, it's illegal employers that should be the major targets of regulation.  For one thing, they're a lot easier to for the legal system to handle than immigrants, who are very hard to track and stop.

For another thing, a more accommodating attitude towards immigrants combined with a tougher attitude towards illegal employers could go a long way towards preventing immigration from cutting native-born workers' wages.  Illegal immigrants are a Republican's dream - dirt-cheap workers with no political power who are afraid to complain when they're mistreated and who will never be able to vote.  One solution to this is simply to make them legal, and put them on the path to citizenship.  If they're able to join unions and they can complain about mistreatment without fear of being kicked out of the country, businesses won't be able to play them off against native-born workers so easily.  (And if you care about helping the poorest Mexicans, which you should, the remittance flows will increase dramatically because of the higher wages.)  I like the way Brad Plumer responded to Paul Krugman's concerns about immigrants driving down wages for native-born workers:


Well, sure, that's true, but that's an argument for living wages, policies to promote full employment, and the expansion of basic rights to organize. Immigrants who can participate in and strengthen the labor movement in this country will help all workers, native or otherwise. Under the current regime, corporations can use immigration and "guest worker" policies to import a captive labor force, underpay them, and then drive down wages, which accounts for a good deal of the effect Krugman worries about.

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Comments

Fantastic. You put everything together in one place, especially the reasons for progressives/labor advocates to support amnesty and relaxing our quota system. The jerks who see illegals as a cheap labor force that requires no accountability in the workplace want to pit the low-wage American workers against immigrants, illegal or otherwise. That's how they win.

Posted by: Stephen | Apr 8, 2006 11:20:59 PM

People shouldn't regard America as too crowded to take in new immigrants. Our population density is lower than the world average

This seems like a useless oversimplification (in an otherwise excellent post). The immigrants are not coming to all areas of the U.S. in equal proportion.

Posted by: Allen K. | Apr 8, 2006 11:44:30 PM

This seems like a useless oversimplification (in an otherwise excellent post). The immigrants are not coming to all areas of the U.S. in equal proportion.

It's a good post, but arguments about density are useless for a different reason.

Usable. Fresh. Water.

Limits to growth are going to come from water shortages. The BBC has a nice little clickable map and article here. Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner is a great read on this subject that focuses largely on the American west.

Posted by: gswift | Apr 9, 2006 2:50:05 AM

I both second the greatness of Cadillac Desert and have to profess myself basically unconcerned about water shortages. If shit ever got too dire, we could always desalinate.

Posted by: Ezra | Apr 9, 2006 3:47:53 AM

Thanks, Stephen.

Allen, the density arguments were necessary to respond to a bad argument that had shown up previously in discussion on the blog. Otherwise, they wouldn't be there.

[comment edited to remove off-topic drunken babble]

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 9, 2006 5:04:52 AM

If shit ever got too dire, we could always desalinate.

Desalination takes a lot of energy. And remember that with your source at sea level, every drop has to be pumped against gravity to it's various destinations.

Not impossible, but the cost would be obscene.

Posted by: gswift | Apr 9, 2006 6:13:57 AM

gswift,

Not all desalination needs to happen at the ocean. In southern New Mexico, the problem is not a shortage of water, rather it's an overabundance of salt water. While desalination is currently quite expensive, at least in that part of the desert there would be no costs from transporting the water from the coasts.

Los Angeles and the Central Valley of California are already the beneficiaries of a huge canal that transports water from where it is plentiful, near Sacramento and San Francisco, to where it is scarce. California's agricultural status is almost entirely dependent upon moving water across vast distances. The canal that does it is, I believe, a little over 500 miles long, and is freaking huge. However, I'm not sure that it would be necessary to transport water over such long distances. Sooner or later, Phoenix, for example, will start to ration water. When that happens, it will become a less desirable place to live, and people will stop moving there, reducing demand to a point where it will be manageable. I'm not saying it would be painless, only that in terms of the US, water shortages need not be catastrophic.

You are spot-on, however, that water is way more important than population density, and as an issue it will become more important as time goes on.

Posted by: Stephen | Apr 9, 2006 9:16:35 AM

With the Central Valley Project we're drawing off two large natural watersheds. Namely, the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. You've got the Sierra Nevadas and the Coast ranges bordering the valley. Gravity does a lot of the work. The CVP has a number of hydroelectric plants in the system, around ten I believe. Similarly, from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles is about a 4,000 foot drop in elevation.

Now that's not to say no energy gets expended. Southern Cal's share of the Colorado has to be pumped over, but look at the numbers involved vs. desalination. (in the section labeled "energy use")

"Energy use requirements for desalination plants are high. For example, an estimated 50 million kWh/yr would be required for full-time operation of the City of Santa Barbara's desalination plant to produce 7,500 AF/yr of water. In contrast, the energy needed to pump 7,500 AF/yr of water from the Colorado River Aqueduct or the State Water Project to the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California is 15 to 26 million kWh/yr. These energy requirements may be compared to the energy use of a small- to medium-sized industrial facility (such as a large refinery, small steel mill, or large computer center) which uses 75,000 to 100,000 kWh/yr."

Perhaps it need not be catastrophic, depending on what we mean by catastrophic of course. But with the way energy prices are going, from an economic standpoint this could get real ugly.

Posted by: gswift | Apr 9, 2006 10:32:45 AM

Yeah, the energe costs are serious, no doubt, though remember that Orange County and San Diego both operate major desalination programs currently. But my point is a bit more basic: those costs aren't near prohibitive enough to force Californians to live with a serious water shortage.

Posted by: Ezra | Apr 9, 2006 12:12:57 PM

Glacial resevoirs are becoming depleted. Regardless of climate change, there won't be rivers of water from the nountains ( I'm not talking timelines or scientific studies. All you have to do is visit glacial sites and it'll slap you in the face - hard ).
In the Andes there have been projects to harvest fog. That sounds a lot less enegy intensive and flow is downhill, always much nicer. Of course acid rain could put a spanner in that.

Posted by: opit | Apr 9, 2006 1:08:46 PM

If shit ever got too dire, we could always desalinate.

Yes, I think there is feasibility to this, but what that means is that large populations are going to be sustained completely at the mercy of whether desalization plants continue to function. Any medium-term interruption of those plants would force those areas supplied by them to immediately depopulate. You have to think long term-- extremely long term-- on this one because one can't guarantee that the desalinization plants will always be cost-effective or in operation, and we don't want the places supplied by them to become uninhabitable wastelands in 1000 years if civilization lacks the resources to support desalinization. At best, desalinization plants could be used to replenish underground aquifiers while at the same time supplying people with water.

Posted by: Constantine | Apr 9, 2006 1:59:04 PM

You have to think long term-- extremely long term-- on this one

In order to discuss immigration reform?? No you don't.
So many other factors -- globalization, population decline due to women seeking education rather than babies, what have you -- will be relevant sooner than these questions you raise of civilization's ability to maintain desalinization plants.

Posted by: Allen K. | Apr 9, 2006 8:45:24 PM

[Neil's argument about amnesty programs and the "cutting in line" meme, snipped for reasons of scroll]

Neil, I happen to be one who likes the "cutting in line" remark, but not in regards to the amnesty program granting citizenship to illegal immigrants. Instead, my focus is that their act of gaining entry to this country legally is, in and of itself, cutting in line.

As you yourself said, there are over seven million people applying via the Diversity Lottery system per annum, trying to get here legally when they themselves might have no chance otherwise. How is the act of illegal immigration by "uneducated Mexicans without family or employment connections" not cutting in line in front of those people? After all, those "uneducated Mexicans without family or employment connections" got here before the honest ones did.

Even aside from those in the Diversity Lottery system, there are another 10 - 12 million people going through the process of legal immigration and have not yet set foot in this country, aside from the occasional U.S. Embassy visit. Again, an illegal immigrant is getting here before the honest ones. Yet more "cutting in line" to get here before the honest ones.

The immediate goal of an illegal immigrant is not to gain American citizenship. Instead, it is to be within the territorial borders of this country. The immediate goal of a legal immigrant is also to be within the territorial borders of this country. Reasons and justifications aside, that is the ultimate result of their various actions. So how is the action of an illegal immigrant not "cutting in line" in front of a legal immigrant?

More of my thought process can be found here and here.

Posted by: Off Colfax | Apr 10, 2006 1:36:09 AM

Fact Check: The Diversity Lottery is actually closed to people from Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, China and other high immigration counties.

It being a diversity lottery, and all - the United States recognizes the need for more Djiboutians to weight out the Canadian plague.

Posted by: Duncan Young | Apr 10, 2006 10:15:07 AM

yeah... that's why we steal your jobs here, instead of coming over there to do it =P

Posted by: almostinfamous | Apr 10, 2006 12:03:48 PM

The immediate goal of an illegal immigrant is not to gain American citizenship. Instead, it is to be within the territorial borders of this country. The immediate goal of a legal immigrant is also to be within the territorial borders of this country. Reasons and justifications aside, that is the ultimate result of their various actions. So how is the action of an illegal immigrant not "cutting in line" in front of a legal immigrant?

"Cutting in line" creates the impression of a legitimate way to get in which a line-cutter makes harder or slower for the people using it. But if I read Neil and the other blogs he linked to correctly, neither part is true of illegal immigration. From certain countries, without meeting certain standards like income level or having a family member who's already American, there is no legal way to become a citizen. Maybe they'd wait in "line" like they should, but we don't know that because it isn't open to them. Huh.

And to the extent that there is a line, "cutting" has no effect on it. Whether someone can legally be admitted is based on income, education, family status, and to a limited extent - see the lottery - country of origin. It has nothing to do with the number, known or estimated, of foreign nationals who already entered the country that month/year/whatever. (Except maybe very indirectly: people might put up with our restrictive legal entry requirements out of dislike for the illegals, and if there were fewer illegals people might tolerate or want more immigration. But that's very indirect, and there's no way to prove it wouldn't even go the other way.)

Of course, that's not a legal argument either way, just an ethical one. Illegal immigration is by definition illegal. But if Nick Beaudrot and Ursako are correct, then it's either misinformed or dishonest to call illegal immigration "cutting in line".

Posted by: Cyrus | Apr 10, 2006 2:49:13 PM

Whether someone can legally be admitted is based on income, education, family status, and to a limited extent - see the lottery - country of origin.

When all is said and done, the US has every right to decide who gets in and who doesn't based upon our needs and not some misguided sense of "fairness". This is not (or should not be) a give-a-way. Every country makes these rules for their own advantage. Our country...our rules.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Apr 10, 2006 5:26:16 PM

Which other countries have their own diversity lotteries that would allow a U.S. citizen to immigrate there? Beyond that, to own property, travel there on a visa and then obtain a work permit?
Should we not have what is essentially a tit for tat standard in the world, yet from my admittedly limited research I have found that this is very far from true.
Shouldn't an open border should work both ways?

Posted by: Michelle | Jun 7, 2006 12:53:31 PM

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