19.6.07

CONTEMPLATING IMMIGRATION AMNESTY. There's more action in Congress on an immigration bill, perhaps with more border enforcement, and perhaps without any amnesty. A Time reporter visits Illinois and files a case for amnesty. He sensibly observes that the perceived unfairness of granting immediate amnesty to people who haven't been waiting a long time for legal entry might, just might, be evidence of flaws in the legal procedure.
If people are frustrated, as they should be, by the fact that some eligible immigrants have been waiting for citizenship for as many as 28 years, then by all means, fix that problem. Streamline the process for legal immigration. But don't blame that red-tape nightmare on the millions of low-wage illegals already here, who form a very different (and vastly more populous) group.
The two procedures cannot be tweaked in isolation. The more onerous the legal admission procedures are, the larger is the pool of potential illegal migrants, and under some circumstances that pool will be more skewed toward people with desirable skills. To some extent, that phenomenon appears present in Beardstown.

Economic anxiety animates much of the resistance to amnesty, particularly from the left. Real wages have been stagnant for nearly three decades throughout the U.S., and for a place like working-class Beardstown, having to deal with a huge new influx of Spanish-speaking workers seems like adding insult to economic injury. But if times are tough in rural America, are illegal immigrants to blame? It turns out that the truly good jobs left Beardstown long before the Mexicans came. In the mid-'80s, the Cargill plant was owned by Oscar Mayer. [Beardstown mayor Bob] Walters was the union representative at the plant back then, and he says it offered good jobs and good benefits, but globalization and other corporate pressures caught up with them. The company shuttered and sold the plant in 1987. Five months later, it reopened under a new owner, with lower wages and fewer benefits. "The starting wage went from $11 an hour to $7.50," says Walters. "The meatpacking industry ought to be ashamed of what they did to towns like ours."

The first Hispanics didn't come to work at Cargill en masse until years later. And as Cargill likes to point out, more white workers work at the factory than before. The plant has in fact grown, thanks in large part to hardworking migrants, not just from Mexico but from more than 20 other countries. The business seems robust for the time being. The workforce is unionized again. Salaries are creeping up. A new Wal-Mart Supercenter is on the way. Cargill's strength has turned Beardstown into, if not a boomtown, at least a place that investors are paying attention to. And the town is leading its pitch with the fact that it has a large Hispanic workforce, a bellwether for economic growth. "That's all I need to tell them," says Steve Twaddle, the county's director of economic development. "Businesses understand."

There is some work on the economics of de facto amnesty in Arye Hillman and Avi Weiss's A Theory of Permissible Illegal Immigration in European Journal of Political Economy. I'll quote the abstract at length.
In many countries laws are not enforced against visibly present illegal immigrants. The visibly present illegal immigrants also tend to be concentrated in particular sectors. We explain such permissible illegal immigration in an endogenous-policy model where selective sector-specific illegality transforms illegal immigrants from non-sectorally specialized to sector-specific factors of production. Under initial conditions where no immigrants are present, the median voter opposes immigration. When, however, a population of illegal immigrants has accumulated, ongoing illegal immigration becomes an endogenous equilibrium policy, at the same time that a majority of voters opposes legal immigration and opposes amnesty that would legalize the immigrants' presence. We also establish a basis for domestic voters preferring that illegal immigrants be employed in service rather than traded-goods sectors.
And perhaps the fear of deportation combined with occasional amnesty fine-tunes the mix of workers.
Cargill has long struggled to rid its rolls of illegal workers who are using false documentation. Most notably, a rumor that another raid was imminent swept through the night shift last month. Those workers who had false papers had to make a decision: stay and risk detention and deportation if the rumor were true, or leave and expose themselves as illegal workers. Cargill wouldn't comment on the incident, but locals say that dozens fled the plant that night and were fired or quit after having outed themselves by leaving.
The technical details of a potentially optimal policy that combines sanction with amnesty appear here. The article also raises the possibility that the availability of cheap immigrant labor biases technical change.
It is not easy to replace them. Meatpacking is a hard job at any salary. There's plenty of new technology in the meatpacking industry, but no machine has yet been invented to take over some of the toughest positions, like the role of gut snatcher, whose sole job is to tug the offal out of each freshly killed hog that comes down the line.
Perhaps because there's no incentive to do so? At one time, the job of laying railroad track was very hard, and a form of immigration amnesty made possible the crew of eight Irish rail haulers and several hundred Chinese laborers that still hold the record for track laid in a day. Today, there are machines that will replace the track underneath the repair train. Given the right set of input prices, there well might be a machine that starts with a freshly killed hog and turns out sausage casings, chitlins, and fertilizer. (On the other hand, some of the meatpacking machinery now in use has permitted the replacement of the boner, at one time a skilled trade, with special machine operators possessing fewer specific skills.)

The article also suggests that immigration amnesty is not "rewarding lawbreakers."

U.S. jurisprudence has in fact always been a series of hedged bets, weighing the potential harm of a violation against the costs of enforcement. That's why people get arrested for assault but not for jaywalking. It's time to think seriously about exactly where the act of illegal immigration lies in the spectrum of criminality. Consider the complicity of U.S. employers ranging from multinational corporations to suburbanites looking for gardeners. Factor in the mixed signals that lax law enforcement sent to would-be immigrants throughout the '80s and '90s, and the crime should rank as a misdemeanor, not a felony. Even if we step up border enforcement in the future--as we should--it is true that for a long time, crossing the Rio Grande was akin more to jaywalking than breaking and entering.

Sure, there is a very real national-security threat in having a porous border. But a large--if unquantifiable--percentage of the people crossing that line illegally are not newcomers but rather people who have already established lives in the U.S. and would qualify for amnesty. If they were legalized and free to circulate, we could concentrate on the serious criminals and terrorists crossing the border, not a worker going back to his family.

In Beardstown, amnesty would also help authorities tackle crime. Right now, they spend a lot of their energy sorting out who is who in the community because illegals present local police with a bewildering maze of identities. The illegals of Beardstown work under one name and go to church under another. Parents give their kindergartners fake names to use in school. "We are absolutely unable to identify our own people," says Walters. It sounds counterintuitive, but with immigration, forgiving a crime may be the best way to restore law and order.

There are two different approaches one can take to the use of amnesty. The one that the columnist callse "counterintuitive" is in fact the long-standing tradition of a theft amnesty. (Libraries sometimes recover long-missing items from their collections by declaring a fine amnesty. Many borrowers simply hold onto the book rather than incure an increasing fine, but their sin is one of omitting to pass by the library in time rather than of committing to expand their own library on the cheap.) The second, which Gil Epstein and Avi Weiss address in their "Theory of Immigration Amnesties," (you need calculus to understand it) releases law enforcement officers from disentangling phony papers among the current cohort of gut-snatchers so as better to capture the terrorists and drug-runners endeavoring to sneak in. Whether the 1986 immigration reform failed to commit those additional resources to securing the borders remains an open question.

A popular reading of recent history holds that the amnesty of 1986, which offered a path to citizenship for 3 million illegals, sparked the much larger wave of unlawful immigration that followed. According to that logic, the '86 amnesty showed would-be migrants from around the world that the U.S. was weak-willed and would eventually relent and give citizenship to its illegals. Duly encouraged, Mexicans and others stormed our borders with unprecedented vigor.

Illegal immigration did soar, but that's not why. Studies show that the valleys and peaks in migration have depended far less on changes in policy or policing and far more on the basic economic conditions in the U.S. and Mexico. If you want to truly tamp down illegal immigration, you could induce a recession in the U.S. A better idea might be to help Mexico create more jobs that pay better. A recent Council on Foreign Relations study found that when Mexican wages drop 10% relative to U.S. wages, attempts to cross the border illegally rise 6%. As complex and corrupt as the Mexican economy is, we ignore it at our peril.

While Mexico patches itself up, at least the security options are better today than in 1986. There is both the political will and the technology to make enforcement a serious part of any amnesty plan. National ID cards, real employer verification, high-tech border controls can all aid in making sure that this would be the last amnesty of this size.

Perhaps so. But there's no reason to rule out all future amnesties, as the cheap-labor subsidy and the self-identification of future taxpayers in the underground economy does not go away. And a "national ID card" is not something to be lightly contemplated. Ihre Papieren, bitte.

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