Illegal immigration: follow the money

Posted: Jan 14, 2004 12:00 AM

Three seemingly unassociated events occurred last week. First, on Jan. 7, President Bush revealed his immigration plan. The plan would offer three-year work visas for illegal immigrants holding American jobs; after that, the registered immigrants could return to their home countries or pursue green cards. These temporary workers would be subject to United States labor laws.

Then, on Jan. 10, The New York Times reported on John F. Kerry's floundering presidential campaign. Kerry has sidled up to Sen. Edward Kennedy, hoping to use Kennedy's popularity and connections to boost his chances. In order to gain Kennedy's support, Kerry began stumping for a "living wage." "I support increasing the minimum wage by $1.50 over the next year," Kerry told the Associated Press.

Finally, on Jan. 12, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union ended secret negotiations with West Coast grocery chains. With the union demanding increased health benefits and higher wages, grocery workers have now been on strike for three months. There is no end in sight.

An immigration plan, a flailing presidential candidate and an immovable union. What's the connection? Follow the money.

Let's start from the beginning. In order to expose the root of illegal immigration, we have to ask: Why do people keep coming? Government social programs surely entice the world's poor to seek our doorstep. But more immigrants come here to get jobs. Most illegal immigrants are hard-working men and women who take jobs at wages no one else would take.

John Kerry and his "living wage" ilk foster illegal immigration. With higher minimum wages, businesses have a huge financial incentive to hire illegal immigrants. There is little to lose. The government will not pursue them for fear that prosecuted companies will hop the border, taking with them American jobs and tax revenue. From 1992 to 2002, the number of companies fined for hiring illegals dropped from 1,063 to just 13.

And there is much for those companies to gain. California, the national home for illegal immigration, sets the state minimum wage at $6.75 per hour. Health care and workers' compensation costs have already scuttled hundreds of business enterprises. Businesses save a fortune by hiring illegal immigrants.

It's no wonder, then, that unions like the UFCW fear illegal immigration. Raising member benefits is the raison d'etre for unions. With the labor pool available to U.S. businesses in the form of illegal immigrants, unions are put at a bargaining disadvantage. Lou Dobbs writes in U.S. News and World Report that "over the past 10 years, more than 2 million low-skilled American workers have been displaced from their jobs."

Unfortunately for union leaders, they must constantly encourage the problem they wish to alleviate. Union bosses make their living from strikes and from raising wages and worker benefits. But every time they demand additional worker benefits, they risk heightening the incentive for businesses to dump union members altogether and hire illegals instead. It is no coincidence that in October, Wal-Mart was investigated for hiring 250 illegal immigrants in 61 stores across 21 states. It is also no coincidence that Wal-Mart is eating its competition.

Union leaders have attempted to cope with the problem of the illegal immigrant labor market by bringing illegals into the fold. They hope that if illegal immigrants join unions, the illegal immigrant community will not undercut union members in the work market. "We don't care if they have a green card; we just care if they have a union card," explains Bernie Hesse, special projects organizer of the UFCW Local 789 in South St. Paul.

President Bush's plan aims to do the same. By offering temporary work visas and dangling the prospect of green cards, President Bush hopes to bring illegal immigrants under the jurisdiction of American labor law, thereby preventing illegals from working for less.

The plan will not work. Even if all working illegals sign up for the Bush program, illegal immigration will skyrocket. Those who were formerly working for lower wages will now work at union rates. Companies will once again search for non-registered illegal immigrants willing to work for less. A new tidal wave of illegal immigration will swamp the lower-end job market. Illegal immigrants foolhardy enough to join the Bush program will lose their jobs to new illegal immigrants not subject to labor laws.

"Living wage" is the issue. Politicians like John Kerry use it as a political football. Unions use it to justify their existence. Illegal immigrants use it to get jobs. Until wages are allowed to drop to their market value, an illegal underclass will always be present to work for less. And companies will always be willing to hire them.