Our Problem With Immigration: Inconsistency

Our Problem With Immigration: Inconsistency June 28, 2018

At some point in your life, you may have had a job like this: you showed up your first day, and your supervisor showed you around and told you a bunch of rules and procedures. To get anything out of the supply cabinet, you need to file a written request with Alice; requests for vacation time need to go to Bob; for petty cash for small purchases, see Charlie.

But in the first few weeks, you learned how things really worked. No one ever actually puts requests to Alice in writing beforehand, they just take what they need from the cabinet and then leave her a note after. Bob delegates vacation requests to his assistant Dave, so you’ll get better results going directly to him. And you can never get ahold of Charlie, he’s always in some meeting or another, but if you make your purchase and take your receipt to Eve she will reimburse you.

The practical, de facto rules were different than the official, de jure ones.

And then…a new manager came along, and said “This flouting of proper procedure is unacceptable! These rules are in place for a reason and from now on they will be followed to the letter. Anyone breaking them will be terminated!”

And the thing is, that new manager isn’t wrong. The rules were in place and everyone knew them, and even an anarchist like me has to agree that there need to be some rules in the workplace. (Anarchists just want them set by mutual agreement of the workers, rather than by managers working on behalf of capitalists.)

And the situation may be bad for the company. It might be especially hard on some employees — like poor Fred in accounting who’s always having to clean up the paperwork over these violations and is getting sort of peeved about it. Indeed a lot of folks think Fred is the one who ratted them out to management, and are upset at him about it.

But that new manager isn’t right, either, because the way that the de facto rules evolved shows that the de jure rules were not working.

This sort of conflict between de jure and de facto rules sets the stage for backlash if the de facto rules don’t work either, if they just shift the problem around — or if someone who values rules for their own sake comes to be in charge.

Which takes us to immigration.

Image by Nick Youngson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via creative-commons-images.com

There are a complex set of rules for legal immigration to the United States. And they don’t work very well. Over the past few decades businesses ranging from agriculture to construction to software development have routinely skirted them — sometimes out of practical necessity, sometimes out of greed — and a set of de facto rules evolved.

Many people came here in violation of the de jure rules but in compliance with the de facto ones. They were no more unethical to do so than our hypothetical office workers were in taking their reimbursement requests to Eve. Many of them built lives here in compliance with those de facto rules.

And many American citizens benefited. The supply of labor in fields like agriculture and construction expanded, the cost fell, and so we got cheaper food and buildings. (And software.) And most of the illegal workers got more opportunity than they had in their home countries.

(I am declining to jump on the euphemism treadmill and refer to these folks as “undocumented”, because that does not mean the same thing. One can be in a country legally and not be documented, though bureaucratic error or loss of documents; one can have documents and yet be there illegally by violating some condition of immigration.)

But many American citizens did not benefit. Immigrants in general, and particularly those here illegally, lack bargaining power, and are often willing to settle for a lower standard of living; so they are exploitable in the capitalist race to the bottom. As the supply of labor expands, wages for workers at the bottom of the pile are dragged down.

As George J. Borjas, professor of economics and social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, explains, “[I]mmigration redistributes wealth from those who compete with immigrants to those who use immigrants — from the employee to the employer.”

And in a partisan environment where Democrats long ago made a deliberate decision to abandon white working-class voters in favor of a coalition of white college-educated professionals and feminists along with African Americans and, later, Latino Americans, pressure built for an anti-immigrant backlash.

Pressure that a narcissistic sociopathic conman and reality TV star was only too happy to use to his advantage.

But those upset about the harmful effects immigration policy have had on them and their communities, are no more unethical than our hypothetical accountant Fred who was getting the short end of the stick in the office situation.

Can we see that both those who came here illegally but in compliance with the de facto rules, and those upset about how the de facto rules have failed them, have legitimate grievances with the power structure?

So what is the answer?

In our office scenario, if the new bosses are to be effective they cannot mindless enforce the old failed de jure rules; they must create a better set. And they cannot punish those who obeyed the old facto rules. They must at least offer a period of amnesty.

But those people whose behavior caused Fred to bear an extra burden owe him something. At the very least, an apology; better, some sort of restitution. He can’t be made the target of recrimination for complaining to the new bosses, not if the company is going to succeed.

Better laws going forward. Amnesty for those who have come here illegally and built a life. Restitution to those who have been harmed by illegal immigration. Mutual forgiveness and basic respect for people trying to make a decent life for themselves, and an understanding the the obstacle is neither immigrants wanting to cheat nor native workers who don’t want to share, but the exploitation of the owning classes.

The odds, my friends, are not good.

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