January 5, 2009 [LINK / comment]

Illegal immigration: no problem

The issue of illegal immigration was swept under the rug during Campaign 2008, as neither candidate was willing to risk losing any votes by addressing that controversy. It's a lot like Social Security -- the high-voltage "third rail" of American politics that nobody wants to touch. Of course, neither McCain nor Obama offered any clear solution to the underlying policy dilemma posed by immigration. Does that mean that the crisis is over? Or perhaps that it was never really a big problem to begin with? Not by a long shot.

Indeed, with the economy in the worst shape it's been in for over three decades, immigrant workers (legal and otherwise) will inevitably play a crucial role in setting the stage for an economic recovery. Penny-pinching firms are more motivated than ever to cut legal corners to save a few bucks here and there, and in hard times government officials are more likely to look the other way. With Barack Obama as president, furthermore, It's safe to say that the Federal government will adopt an even more relaxed approach to policing our borders and enforcing immigration laws in our workplaces than did President Bush, whose own party had to force him to do his duty. The current economic situation poses a severe threat to the immigration reform movement, undermining popular support for strong government action.

Friday's Washington Post reported on a small-scale example of how the changing economic climate is affecting public sentiment on immigration policy. As more and more undocumented Latino families move out of Prince William County, which has been Ground Zero for the immigration enforcement movement, it is getting harder and harder to find good child-care providers. So, a group of mothers has mobilized to resist the crackdown. (I saw a police checkpoint on Route 28 in Manassas a few months ago, so I can confirm that local officials are deadly serious about this.) They say they want to make the policy debate more reasonable in tone, and have launched a new blog (antibvbl.net) to fight back against Black Velvet Bruce Li (Greg Letiecq). Well, I'm all in favor of reason, but the comment by one of the women regarding the movement to resist illegal immigration sounds to me like the misplaced sentimentalism that is typical of many liberals: "It was as if they were saying he wasn't making a contribution or worthy of being here..." No, Ms. Almeda, it's not about being appreciated, it's about reestablishing the rule of law.

This points to an even bigger dimension to the problem: the sharp rise in housing vacancies in Manassas has caused a budgetary crisis for local government as revenues dry up, and some businesses have shut down. The collateral effects of the crackdown on illegal immigration (see last April) makes some people wonder if it was a big mistake to go after illegal immigrants. (Let no one forget, legal immigration has been a very positive force in our economy and society; see last July, for example.) In my view, the day or reckoning was bound to come sooner or later. In a capitalist economy in which businesses and consumers constantly go bargain-hunting for better deals, the status quo ante in which everyone turned a blind eye to massive cheating would have eventually turned most of our economy into something like the Third World, with substandard, unsafe practices becoming the norm, and no recourse for people getting ripped off. If you've never lived for more than a week or two in Latin America or some other poor part of the world, you just wouldn't understand. As I wrote after Bush's final State of the Union Address nearly one year ago,

Understandably, the President said nothing about the potential for a major decline in U.S. global prestige if the current economic turmoil (mortgage defaults, rising energy prices) turns into a real crisis. The inability of Bush or any leader in Washington right now to effectively address the immigration issue, and more importantly to recognize the ugly truth that our economy today depends to a large extent on illegal activity, raises the possibility that the U.S. economy and the global economy are in a more precarious position than most people realize.

You read it here first. Or you should have, anyway.

In any case, there is, in fact, a solid basis for the argument that cracking down on illegal aliens was what triggered the mortgage crisis early last year, precipitating the current recession. I recently found some illuminating thoughts on the connection between illegal aliens and the sub-prime mortgage meltdown from a blog post by Michelle Malkin last May. This came from Greg Letiecq, who also drew attention to a pro-immigration group called the Commonwealth Institute. They issued a report which found that "undocumented workers" add a substantial net revenue benefit in Virginia.

As usual, however, those sorts of arguments miss the point, trying to tally up the direct costs and benefits, while ignoring the collateral damage to the socio-economic system caused by widespread labor market cheating. The longer such abuses were tolerated, the more frayed our social fabric would have become, as the precious "social capital" of trust -- as political scientist Robert Putnam emphasizes -- would have dwindled away. (See his book Bowling Alone.) To put it bluntly, the massive scale hiring of illegal workers who come from strife-torn, impoverished Third World countries amounts to importing class conflict, to put a twist on a slogan of Karl Marx. Is that what we want?

Another of the small group of pundits and bloggers who really grasp the big connections between immigration policy and our overall economy is Steve Sailer. He was recently cited by the esteemed conservative analyst Michael Barone (of USNWR). As Sailer wrote at vdare.com:

The Crash is, at a fundamental level, a readjustment to demographic change. America's immigration-driven shifting ethnic balance means that the average human capital of U.S. residents is now lower than was assumed.

That's an interesting way of expressing the problem. So just to clarify the ironic blog heading above, Yes, Virginia, illegal immigration is a very big problem.