Tuesday, May 25, 2004

IN OUR VIEW Do the calculations on immigration :: The Daily Herald, Provo Utah

IN OUR VIEW Do the calculations on immigration :: The Daily Herald, Provo Utah

IN OUR VIEW Do the calculations on immigration

The Daily Herald

The zeal of some to strictly enforce immigration law and reduce the number of migrants in America risks a backfire that could wind up severely damaging the economy.

Like it or not, the U.S. economy is dependent upon undocumented workers. They take jobs Americans won't touch, or would only perform for a lot more money. The Social Security fund is dependent on contributions from millions of workers who pay in but who will never collect benefits. Consumers are dependent on the commodities migrants produce -- food leading the list. Local governments are dependent on tax revenues generated by migrants, especially in major centers like California, Illinois and the Northeast.

A significant reduction of the migrant population could start a chain reaction that would devastate American business, with bankruptcies in many businesses that are dependent on inexpensive labor.

It's time to set aside emotions and do the math, a thorough revenue/expense analysis to demonstrate both the futility and the stupidity of immigrant layoffs and deportations.

Widespread deportations and migrant layoffs -- desired so ardently by the far right -- would have unintended consequences of leviathan proportions. We're all part of an economic web, and when you pull one string, everybody feels the effect.

Yet the political wind in Utah and elsewhere appears to be blowing toward a crackdown on migrant workers -- not just young male drifters from the border regions, but on established families who have lived in this country many years, held jobs, paid taxes and spent money. The extremists just want them all gone.

Be careful what you wish for.

Too many Americans are uninformed or in denial about the economic importance of the immigrant work force. Ultra-conservatives denounce anyone who dares acknowledge that immigrants are a vital component of the nation's economic machine.

Unfortunately, the extremists are gaining ground. One manifestation is the new federal rule stiffening procedures by which an employer must verify a job applicant's status. The rule goes into force in December, shifting the verification burden more aggressively to employers by requiring them to check applicants against the computer databases of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly INS) and Social Security Administration. The pilot project undertaken in six states was successful, and Uncle Sam is now taking the procedures nationwide.

Civil penalties for employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers are severe, which will motivate compliance -- up to $2,000 per person per day for the first offense and increasing to $10,000 a day for the third offense.

At first glance, the requirement for computer verification may seem reasonable. In truth, however, it will bring the immigration problem to a head because of the economic damage it's likely to do. Untold numbers of migrants are likely to lose their jobs and may be forced to leave the country. That may seem like a good thing to some, but the economic chain reaction it portends will take the smiles off their faces.

Like Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who led the effort to develop a nuclear bomb for the Nazis in World War II, the anti-immigrant faction has failed to do the calculations. Why bother when it's easier to rely on intuition and selective use of data? It's easier to get on a rhetorical high horse about enforcing America's immigration laws, about securing our borders, about immigrants who are breaking the law and so forth than it is to analyze the real economic impact.

Heisenberg's intuition was that it would take tons of uranium-235 to create a nuclear bomb. If he had just done the calculations, he would have realized it takes only a few kilograms, and Germany would have had nuclear weapons in the early 1940s. What a different world it would be today.

If the immigrant-bashers would simply do the calculations, they would see that they're creating an economic bomb that will wreak havoc on American life. The move to kick out migrant workers can easily spiral into an economic nightmare.

Based on U.S. Census data, there are somewhere around 10 million illegal workers in America. They are responsible for a Social Security contribution of $30 to $35 billion annually through payroll withholding and employer matching contributions. Because they don't take anything out, it can be said that they fund 271,000 Americans' Social Security benefits annually. The system might collapse without that income.

But there are other shock waves that would emanate from tough enforcement. Imagine widespread bankruptcies in agriculture when huge farms in California, the fifth-largest economy in the world, are unable to harvest their crops for lack of inexpensive labor. It's a scary and plausible prospect.

While you're at it, imagine how a crackdown on immigrants will dramatically thin the ranks of labor in countless other businesses in construction, cleaning, manufacturing and restaurant industries.

Many illegal immigrants pay for health care benefits through their employers. If we pull the rug out from under them, they will join the ranks of the uninsured, seeking charity care at nonprofit hospitals and getting it. The economics of health care would be fundamentally and dramatically altered.

It is unlikely that American workers -- least of all the pimply teenagers whose jobs we're told are being stolen by immigrants -- will step in to fill the void created by a reduction in the immigrant labor pool. Take a guess who'll pay for that. That's right, the consumer, through higher costs for food and services.

Some anti-immigration groups suggest the solution is to put all illegal immigrants on buses and haul them to the nearest border. That is absurd. There's not enough manpower or money in government to enforce this even if we wanted to.

Moreover, many of these illegal immigrants have children who were born in this country and are American citizens. What's to be done with them?

Perhaps the biggest economic fear these days is that inflation will kill the recovery. Getting rid of immigrants is one way to make sure that happens.

A reasonable solution has been proposed: amnesty for immigrants who have a stable job history, combined with a worker program, supported by President Bush and U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. Under the worker program, a company could hire foreign workers to fill positions Americans won't take. Companies would be allowed to sponsor such workers for citizenship or legal residency, rather than losing hard-working, dedicated employees who are not legal citizens or because short-term visas expire.

A responsible amnesty program won't solve everything. But it is an important step toward bringing order to the system and recognizing the vital contribution immigrants make to America.

At bottom, America's illegal immigration problem is not about lawbreaking, though all too many would like to frame it simplistically. It is a serious economic issue with nuances that can only be addressed if we accept reality and resist bumper-sticker philosophies.

We should start by rejecting the 9/11 argument for tighter restrictions in the name of national security, one of the obvious red herrings of our day. Latino immigrants -- which is to say most immigrants -- are not terrorists any more than American citizens are.

It's time for American business, in its own self-interest, to stand up and pressure Congress and the states to do the right thing. And it's time for individual Americans to recognize the danger to which they're being exposed by the anti-immigrant movement.

It's time to do the calculations.

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A6.


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