May 24, 2007
Even as the Senate approved an ambitious immigration package (see Washington Post), activists on both sides are gearing up to stop any such change dead in its tracks. Why? Because the interest groups that benefit from maintaining the status quo are far better organized and mobilized than those who work in the broad public interest and recognize that the current system cannot be sustained indefinitely.
It was thus very appropriate that the local PBS affiliate WVPT hosted a panel discussion on immigration this evening. Jacqueline and I drove up to Harrisonburg and enjoyed exchanging views with those who attended. The program was moderated by Chris Graham, editor of The New Dominion, and included four panelists: Amy Lilly, an elementary school ESL teacher, Sam Nickels, with the New Bridges Immigration Resource Center, Jim Patrick, a member of the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors, and John Vinson, Editor of Americans for Immigration Control. It may be broadcast at some point in the future. The first two speakers were strongly pro-immigrant, emphasizing humanitarian values and downplaying the risks to social stability, while the latter two speakers were strongly in favor of restricting immigration, insisting on enforcing the law. My heart sides with the first two, and my mind sides with the latter two. Chris Graham strained mightily to keep the dialogue on civil terms, showing how fragile the rational middle ground position is on this vital issue.
After the discussion among the panelists, the members of the audience were invited to join in. One of those who did so was Rick Castaneda, chairperson of the Hispanic Services Council in Harrisonburg.
I spoke up to bemoan the lack of attention to applying basic principles of free market economics to this issue. In particular, I took issue with Chris Graham's assertion that American workers would refuse to work in poultry plants no matter how high the wage was. I said that it's just a matter of how high the wage was; I have no doubt that wages of $20 an hour would attract a sufficient number of American-born workers, in which case the price of chicken would of course rise to the natural market level. But the big businesses that dominate this sector want cheap labor to avoid paying for health insurance and other entitlements, and most Americans go along with this because they are used to paying cheap prices for chicken. Everyone around the Shenandoah Valley knows that poultry processing plants employ mostly immigrant workers with essentially no legal rights, curtailing job opportunities for young people who grow up in this area. Much of our "WalMart" economy is based on massive cheating, which disrupts the normal supply and demand mechanism and confusing people about relative value and scarcity. Reforming this system will be very difficult and painful.
I also cited a joke by Jay Leno: If we give amnesty to all the 12 or so million illegal immigrants, they will qualify for minimum wage and get other welfare entitlements, and thus would no longer be forced to do those menial jobs, in which case we would have to bring in 12 [million] more illegal immigrants to do those jobs!