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« In Other Economic News | Main | Carnival of the Capitalists »

Half the Illegal Immigration Story

I had the chance to talk with Fred Elbel, executive director of Defend Colorado Now, this evening on John Andrews's Backbone Radio. DCN is sponsoring a petition drive for a ballot initiative that would prevent non-emergency state services from going to illegal immigrants. It's pitched as part of the overall solution - not the entire solution itself - and it makes sense. I'll find time to trundle down to their downtown office sometime this week and sign the thing myself.

Still, part of Mr. Elbel's pitch disturbed me. It's undoubtedly true that illegal immigrants are costing the state a ton of money in services. But Mr. Elbel also said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that the only beneficiaries were the businesses that hire them. That's obviously untrue, and it's so obviously untrue that it requires a response.

Businesses compete. They compete on price and they compete on service. But for many services, they compete on price alone. Lawn-mowing and gardening services, housecleaning services, for instance, compete mostly, although not exclusively on price. Which means that lower labor costs are not a sustainable competitive advantage. Which means that if Colorado wages really are being affected, it can only be because consumers are paying less for those services, as well. This translates directly to an increased standard of living.

If I can make more after taxes in an hour than it costs me to have my house cleaned, I'm better off working that hour than cleaning my house. If, on the other hand, it costs me more to have my house cleaned, I'm better off cleaning my house myself. Likewise mowing my yard, washing my car, or pretty much any other service. And with the money left over, I can either save or buy things.

In short, it's not amorphous "businesses" who benefit, at all. In the long run, they're no better off than before, although they no longer have the option of going back to higher-priced labor unless they cater to a specialty market. It's consumers and homeowners, because they pay less for services that free up their time. And honest accounting of the effects of illegal immigration needs to include this basic economic fact.

This logic, and this rhetoric, are eerily similar to those used to demonize Wal Mart. If free-market conservatives aren't careful, they'll find they've won one debate, but on terms that guarantee them losses elsewhere.


I'm glad to see that we as a country are having this discussion and that people are taking a hard look at all of the factors. In some ways, I think that this isssue, more than any other in recent memory, requires and is receiving bi-partisian attention, and hopefully will receive bi-partisan support for the end solution.

I agree that there are no clear winners or losers from the current situation, and it is a complex issue. Going back to the topic of enjoying our low cost manual labor, many argue that we hire people who do work that we don't want to do at wages that we don't want to be paid, and that we are better as individuals in this country because of it.

If landscapers were paid decent money, maybe more people would want the work, and they may even be more efficient. There's got to be a few people out there that would personally prefer landscaping to flipping burgers. Second issue, future labor scarcity. With the demographic shift that we're getting ready to experience, will we have enough people to be able to afford allocating the national headcount to manual work, instead of running all of the companies that we in the US have grown to know and love? I'd argue that if there is enough money in it, people will invent technology to make landscaping less labor intensive.

So where would that leave us? We'd pay fewer people better money, maybe get some cost savings from it personally, and have taxes paid on those earnings. Perhaps we'd also end up with more engineering level jobs, and less burger flipping "new jobs created". Another option may be that a few more people would have to drag their lazy butts (or the lazy butts of their kids) off of the couch and get some exercise mowing their own lawns and help with the national obesity issue.

I also think that we've somehow been brainwashed into thinking it's our right to have low paid landscapers. If you think about the "middle-class" quality of living standards that people had 40 years ago, against what appears to be our standards today, I think we're kind of out of whack. I don't remember Ward Clever having any landscapers besides Wally and the Beave. I also don't remember Ward and June needing an H2 Hummer, or a weekly manicure. Now don't get me wrong, none of these things are bad but I think our perspective has gotten skewed over time, and people in this country have more personal debt than ever because we are trying to live the "middle-class" dream.

On a different note, I don't know how much this has been brought to light, I personally haven't heard anyone throwing this into the equation, but...

Illegals are putting "some" additional stress on our law enforcement, legal, and penal systems now that we could transfer to more proactive measures. I say some because I have no idea how big the actual problem is, but I had the distinct honor of sitting through a session of court in Adams County about 3 months ago (not for myself mind you!), but many of the cases, which were felony level cases, involved illegal immigrants. I don't know quickly they are deported, but it's another set of social costs, both monetary and quality of life on undeniably strained systems. Frankly, if we managed to accomplish nothing else besides screening convicted felons out of the country, before they enter the country and hurt actual citizens, we should count the program successful. I don't know how many illegal immigrant terrorists are coming in the country, but I'd be fascinated to know how many felons are, and how many peoples lives that are taking or ruining through their actions.

In some ways, I'm really disappointed about the way in which illegal immigrants are handling this issue by seeking to cause harm to the businesses that employ them and really the country that has been pretty "flexible" up to now. At the same time, maybe this outside pressure will actually help us get to a solution, unlike many issues that we all agree are problems (healthcare, etc.) but no one is having a mass protest about.

In some ways, it may have been better for the illegals to have let us go our usual route and get sucked so far into a political quagmire that we ended up doing nothing at all and forget about it in a year or so.

However, it does surprise me that people who claim it is too difficult to go through the current immigration system have no problem organizing a nationwide protest...

The problem isn't with immigration, but with undocumented immigration. Companies that try to abide by US law are put at a great disadvantage to those that ignore the law. This is a dangerous precedent as it systematically erodes the rule of law.

Companies that exploit the undocumented status of immigrants undermine the economy. Illegal immigrations creates a marginalized class of workers. Having a large marginalized group throws the economic considerations you described out the window.

Reestablishing the rule of law is the central point in the debate. Some people think that a second amnesty won't restore the rule of law.

The problem with the present system is that businesses that ignore the rules are undermining those that play by the rules. That really is not a good situation. The lack of respect for the rule of law is the primary reason that Mexico has no opportunities for its citizens.

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