Monday, April 17, 2006

Gwynne Dyer: Illegal migrants here to stay

Two things about American immigration are different. One is that the United States is the only large First World country that has a long land border with a Third World country. The other is that, among developed countries, only the US has a politically powerful domestic lobby that actively wants a large, steady flow of unskilled immigrants, preferably illegal ones.

Taken together, these two oddities explain why immigration in America is such an explosive topic and why Congress is unable to pass a law regulating the flow.

The collapse of bipartisan negotiations in the Senate on a new immigration bill probably marks an end for this year of the attempt to impose some order on what many Americans see as out-of-control illegal immigration.

What split both parties and ultimately doomed the law were President Bush's proposals for an amnesty for 9 million of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the US, and a new programme to admit an extra 400,000 temporary "guest workers" every year.

The House of Representatives passed a much tougher law involving serious penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants and the construction of a 1100km fence along much of the Mexican border, but with Congress in recess, that is probably dead, too.

There is probably neither the time nor the political will for the Senate to have another go at the issue before the elections that are due in November.

This is all about Mexicans. Contrary to local belief, the US does not have a particularly high proportion of recent immigrants compared to other industrialised countries.

No more than one person in eight is foreign-born in the US, considerably less than in neighbouring Canada, where the ratio is one in five, and not much more than in large European countries such as Germany, France or Britain. But nowhere else has so many illegal immigrants, nor so many who are unskilled workers, nor such a high share from a single country.

Mexican nationals make up the great majority of the "undocumented workers" - illegal immigrants - in the US economy. The language issue is largely a red herring: most newly arrived Hispanic families were fluent in English by the second generation, as did previous waves of immigrants.

But the argument that illegal immigrants take away jobs from many equally unskilled native-born Americans and drive wages down for the rest has never been convincingly refuted, even though it remains politically incorrect.

It's not that native-born American high-school drop-outs "won't do those jobs" they just won't do them for $5 or $8 an hour - or at least, a lot won't.

But many poor Americans simply have no choice and end up working long hours in miserable jobs for half the money that an unskilled French or German worker would earn for the same work.

Illegal immigrants are not a majority of the workers in most of the fields where they find jobs; unskilled Americans are. The only job in which there are almost no native-born Americans is seasonal agricultural stoop labour. Professors George Borjas and Lawrence Katz, of the National Bureau of Economic Research, calculated that the real wages of US high-school dropouts would have been 8 per cent higher in 1980-2000 if unskilled (and mostly illegal) Mexican workers had been kept out..

One of the most ridiculous myths is the argument that the US-Mexican frontier is too long to police effectively and humanely. This is a country that maintains an army of 140,000 soldiers in a hostile country halfway around the planet claiming it cannot build and maintain a decent fence along the Mexican border.

Instead, we have been treated to a 30-year political charade in which little bits of fence are built in the traditional urban crossing places, thus forcing illegal Mexican immigrants into the desert where many die - but enough still get through to keep America's low-wage industries fully staffed.

America's immigration problem has remained unsolved for decades because powerful economic interests in the US, with great influence over Congress, do not want it solved.

All the other business that has been so earnestly debated in the Senate - quotas for guest-workers, amnesty for long-resident illegal immigrants, and so on - is just the political cover that is needed to keep illegal immigrant labour plentiful and unskilled wages low.

* Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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