Let them eat political correctness

Rich Lowry
|
Posted: Aug 29, 2003 12:00 AM

It is odd that liberals would fervently support a government program to suppress the wages of low-income Americans, especially minorities. But they do. The program is called high-level immigration.

The latest evidence that untrammeled immigration into America, both legal and illegal, harms the economic interests of low-income workers comes from a report by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. It found that natives and established immigrants in the United States earn 11 percent less when they work with new Hispanic immigrants. Minority workers are especially hard hit -- they earn an average of 14 percent less. The more new immigrants there are, the less the other workers make.

Thus, high-level immigration is further laid bare as one of the great corporate welfare programs of all time. Immigration gives employers a ready source of cheap labor, reduces the bargaining power of native-born workers and weakens the clout of unions. It imposes costs on taxpayers, so all of us subsidize employers' cheap workers.

No wonder corporate America loves our open borders. They serve as a kind of rolling, reverse minimum-wage law.

The dynamic at work is simple: supply and demand. Immigration floods the country with unskilled workers, as most new arrivals come from Mexico and other poor countries in Latin America. According to Steven Camarota of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, immigration increased the supply of people without a high-school education during the past decade by 21 percent. It increased the supply of all other workers only by roughly 4 percent.

Economics 101 says that the more poorly skilled workers there are, the less they will make. Indeed, according to the National Research Council, roughly half of the decline in real wages for native high-school dropouts from 1980 to 1994 was due to immigration.

This particularly hurts two of liberals' most sainted groups -- "the children" and minorities. According to Camarota, one-third of children in poor working families are dependent on a parent who lacks a high-school diploma. Meanwhile, 7 percent of native-born, white, full-time workers lack a high-school education. The figure for native-born blacks is 12 percent, and for native-born Hispanics it is 20 percent -- so they disproportionately bear the brunt of immigration.

While new immigrants hurt the most vulnerable part of the American workforce, they also impose costs on everyone else. By Camarato's calculation, 36 percent of all immigrants -- legal and illegal -- without a high-school education receive some welfare payment.

What to do? The author of the UCLA study recommends an amnesty to give new immigrants more rights, on the theory that that will increase their bargaining power with employers. But an amnesty will only draw even more new immigrants, further flooding the labor pool and depressing wages.

The real answer is to scale back legal immigration and control the nation's borders, so low-income workers don't have to compete against new immigrants, especially people who have no right to be here. That's why the late Barbara Jordan, one of the great liberal voices of the past three decades, called for cutting back on immigration in the 1990s. She was demonstrating a traditional liberal solicitude for low-income workers, particularly blacks.

The fact is that societies have always sought to exploit cheap labor with no or few rights, from ancient Greece with its Helots to the antebellum South with its slaves. Our reliance on immigrant labor is nowhere near as odious as those prior systems, but it is morally corrupting. Certain jobs are now considered unfit for natives, and employers are benefiting from illegality to wiggle out of paying native workers what they otherwise would make.

It's time to tell middle-class families across the country, from California to the suburbs of New York: Mow your own damn lawns. And to tell employers: Stop cheating your fellow citizens.

As a practical political matter, that won't happen until liberals rediscover their overriding concern for low-wage workers. Don't count on it. On the left today, multiculturalism trumps all, and instead of higher wages, liberals prefer to give low-income Americans political correctness.