Build a wall. Make them pay for it.
Immigration reform is a hot topic in this year’s US presidential election. Donald Trump raised eyebrows with his plan to build a wall across the US-Mexican border and deport all illegal immigrants living in the US, should he win the presidency.
Not surprisingly, many public figures criticized the plan, the latest being Pope Francis.
For the sake of this post, let’s assume that Donald Trump will deliver on his promise.
The immigration discussion is an important but complicated one. Before making any quick policy decisions, there are two points on the subject that are worth exploring: first, while Trump offers a quick solution to the issue, the current state of the issue is not one that appeared overnight. This is important because, second, illegal immigration has had deep social and economic effects in US daily living.
Braceros to Now
Understanding illegal Latin American immigration requires going back to World War 2. Latin American labour has been a staple to the US workforce for decades.
In 1942, the US established The Bracero Program, a program which granted temporary work permits to Mexicans wanting to help America’s war efforts. The program, much like the work permits being offered to Mexicans, was meant to be temporary. As it turned out, Bracero was so efficient that Congress extended and expanded it into the 1950s.
By the 1960s, however, there were concerns that it had become an “exploitative labour regime on a par with Southern sharecropping”. So, in 1964, rather than amending the program to give Mexicans better working conditions, congress gave it the axe. By 1968, there were no Mexicans in the US under the program (Massey and Pren, p. 3). But this didn’t stop Mexicans (and Latin Americans) from continuing their job-hunting the US.
During the Bracero program, Mexicans would come in and out of the US in cycles, making immigration largely invisible for the common American—about half a million Mexicans would enter the US every year. The elimination of the program didn’t reduce the desire of Mexicans to come into the US, nor did it quell the number of Mexicans entering the country— it only made their entry illegal. While permits were granted to fill quotas, an overwhelming amount of Mexicans entered the country without one (pp. 4-5). Suddenly, the US had an immigration problem on its hands, as shown by the graph below.
The Cold War added fuel to this problem. Latin Americans journeyed to the US in droves, and because a significant number of them came from countries in civil war—which were primarily fought between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing governments— the threat of a “communist invasion” was enough for the US to heighten border security spending across the US-Mexican border (the border had been patrolled since 1924, but never with this sense of urgency) (Hanson, p. 9).
This persisted throughout the 1970s and 80s. Eventually, “communism” morphed into “terrorism” in the 1990s following the 1993 World Trade Centre attack and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Congress responded in 1996 by passing two laws: the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration
Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (the latter of which also had repercussions for gang activity, which I wrote about here) (p. 15). These laws preceded further border patrol spending as well as the deportation of illegal immigrants. Added to these would later be The USA PATRIOT ACT, which peaked deportations in 2009 at 400,000 illegal immigrants (p. 16).
The 2010s brought new sets of concerns: Central American families (specifically from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) were sending unaccompanied child migrants to the US in efforts to escape gang-violence, which renewed debates around US immigration policies. It was also around this time that President Obama announced his plan for immigration reform which would have granted 4 million illegal immigrants a legal status in the US. Whether or not the plan will stick will be decided by the US Supreme Court sometime this year.
Fast-forward to 2016, presidential candidates have put immigration into their agendas. It isn’t only Donald Trump making bold announcements, either. Hilary Clinton has reached out to Hispanic voters through a “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela” campaign (which some Hispanics didn’t like. You can see here) as well as releasing this ad in which she promises to address immigration reform:
What this (brief) history shows is that the current state of illegal immigration was not shaped overnight. Going back to World War 2, immigration reform and policies have tangled, political roots that have influenced border policies and have influenced America’s makeup. Indeed, the issue has been around for enough time that it has left an impact on the way America functions.
The Messy Truth
Shortly after Trump announced his brash proposal, Kelly Osbourne, son of rock star Ozzy Osbourne and star to MTV’s The Osbournes, fired back at Trump while guest hosting The View. She made a comment regarding immigration that may have been as equally as brash as Trump’s statement:
Stained in the mess of “cleaning toilets” (as harsh and a bit too off-the-cuff as the comment was), Osbourne identified an important aspect of Latin American illegal immigration: there are labour intensive jobs, such as landscaping, vegetable picking, construction work, and nannying, which are attractive to both illegal immigrants and their employers. This is a fact that is too important to ignore: according to the Pew research centre, illegal immigrants make up 5.1% of America’s labour force (see point 4).
How is it that so many illegals can find employment in the midst of such strong anti-illegal immigrant sentiments?
The majority of immigrants who cross the border between the US and Mexico tend to come from countries where under-education is common. This contrasts their American counterparts who, by living in the US, come from a country where “low schooling levels are increasingly hard to find” among workers. Indeed, “between 1960 and 2000, the share of working-age native-born U.S. residents with less than twelve years of schooling fell from 50 percent to 12 percent”. In comparison, in the year 2000, three-quarters of working-age Mexicans (it’s estimated that 49% of illegal US immigrants were Mexican in 2014, according to Pew research Centre) had less than twelve years of schooling under their belts (Hanson, 14). The gap in education is hard to ignore.
This affects illegal immigrants in two ways. First, being under-educated reduces the chance of coming into the US legally (as the US wants to attract skilled workers). Second, because they are forced to come in illegally, immigrants become prime candidates for low-paying but high-demand jobs (“cleaning toilets”). This, in turn, establishes a power balance between the employer and employee: because the immigrant is illegal, the employer has no obligation to write a formal contract of employment and can thus employ the immigrant “under the table”. Moreover, s/he can contract the immigrant for less money because the immigrant has no legal status.
The immigrant, while having his/her hands tied behind his/her back, is able to move about freely between jobs because there is no official employment contract. Furthermore, the immigrant is not obligated to pay taxes, allowing him/her to put more money in his/her pocket. Simply put, “illegal immigration…accomplishes what legal immigration does not: it moves large numbers of low skilled workers from a low-productivity to a high-productivity environment” (p. 15).
So what happens when you build a wall and kick part of your work-force out? Do you create jobs for US citizens? Yes and no.
“People in Alabama are not going to do this”
Take, for example, the case of Alabama’s 2011 anti-immigration bill, HB 56, officially known as the “Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act”. In short, HB 56 was a bill which aimed to rid the state of illegal immigrants by way of self-deportation—instead of actively searching for and deporting illegal immigrants, the bill made life harder for illegals by essentially cutting off their social services (such as police service and transportation).
HB56 was in a way a “test-run” for self-deportations: if it could work in Alabama, chances are, it could work in other states.
The bill worked. Maybe a little too well: many illegal immigrants (and even some legal immigrants who refused to leave their illegal relatives behind) left Alabama, and in doing so, left vacant agriculture jobs for legal citizens to take up.
However, the hole left by illegal workers would be felt in the following months. The Associated Press reported that after illegals left the state, landowners struggled to find legal workers to replace the illegal immigrants. Legal citizens were reported to either quit early because they couldn’t handle the working conditions, or left because they simply could not perform as well as their illegal counterparts (the lacked the skills to meet quotas).
The law also had economic effects: The Washington Post reported that a Wayne’s Farms in Albertville, Alabama had to spend “more than $5 million dollars to train new workers and compensate for lost production”. A 2012 University of Alabama study also concluded that the law had the potential to shrink Alabama’s GDP by roughly 6%.
The Alabama case reinforces the significance of illegal immigrants in America. It took an anti-immigration bill for their contributions to be truly noticed.
Tear down the wall
If Donald trump is elected, and if he went through with his immigration plan (assuming he would be okay with the financial burden of building a wall, should Mexico not want to pay for it. Which a real possibility…), he would be, in a way, repeating history. The Guardian argued that what Trump is proposing is very similar to World War 2 Japanese internment camps, arguing that
if history is a guide, [Trump’ s plan] would consume significant budgetary and law enforcement resources, could precipitate a national social crisis, and might expose the country to reparations claims for decades to come.
While this post’s underlying argument is that the deportation of all illegal immigrants is unwise, at the same time, it does not advocate for complete disregard of the country’s borders—every country should have the right to choosewho and who it doesn’t it let in. After all, legitimate concerns, such as criminal activity (ie. drug cartels, gang activity), strengthening of the workforce, and terrorism do exist (it should be noted that there isn’t any evidence to suggest that terrorists have entered the US through the Mexican border).
Therefore, because of their socio-economic significance, and because haphazardly opening the borders would be unwise, legitimate discussions are needed to establish good immigration policies. Unfortunately, we often want quick solutions to complex problems, so we resort to labels or terms to oversimplify the debate (“illegal immigrants are taking our jobs!” “we need low-skilled workers; let more illegal immigrants come in!”). Indeed, there is a lot more to the debate that this blog post could not cover.
But that doesn’t mean a solution to the issue should not be pursued. If Donald Trump gets elected and goes through with this plan, America should borrow from a previous president and shout “Mr. Trump, tear down this wall!”