The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Saturday, January 17, 2004


Colby Cosh criticized Gregg Easterbrook's contention that if the illegal immigrants are given amnesty, "Working conditions will almost surely improve for the millions of illegals who take the restaurant, lawn-service, cleaning, and other jobs that most Americans simply do not want." Colby's response:


All together now: at any price? ... The most entertaining recent rebuttal of this idea that some jobs won't be performed by Americans for any wage whatsoever can be found under the byline of Kate O'Beirne:


According to the 2000 census, 87 percent of illegal immigrants are in 15 states, with about 80 percent in only 10 states. California ranks number one. About 6.5 percent of its total population of 33.9 million is estimated to be illegal aliens. Texas, New York, Illinois, and Florida rank in the top five states. But, 40 states have relatively insignificant illegal-immigrant populations.

Californians (with over 30 percent of all illegal aliens), Texans, (with 15 percent) and New Yorkers (with 7 percent) might understandably wonder who will take undesirable jobs if a willing pool of illegal aliens weren't available. They should check with Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, or any one of the majority of states to see how they cope.


[Emphasis mine.] What they'd find if they looked, of course, is a whole passel of economies that have never come to depend on undocumented migrant labour in the first place. No one can expect the economies of California and Texas to transform into their like overnight, but the incentives provided by the federal government will determine which way the wind blows.


The rebuttal is superficially plausible but wrong. There is a fallacy which holds that increasing the minimum wage raises low-paid workers' wages, when all it does is to price the labor market out of their reach. "Americans could be found to perform grunt labor if the wages were higher" is just the flip side of this fallacy. If you raise the price of a cleaning job from $7 per hour to $10 per hour, the result will not be that an American worker takes that job. The result will be that the cleaning job does not exist.

Also, O'Beirne and Colby treat states as isolated economic entities. There are immigrants who work in service jobs, which necessarily have a local benefit. But many illegal immigrants work in agriculture; more specifically, in "truck farming," which is labor-intensive harvesting of fruits and vegetables. An American farmer in Nebraska uses a combine to harvest wheat; a Mexican laborer in California picks grapes or lettuce. California produces 90% of America's grapes and half its lettuce, and it's hard to imagine that it could still do so in the absence of cheap migrant labor. Wages are 30 to 60 percent of the cost of producing oranges, strawberries, and grapes, according to a paper from the Center for Immigration Studies.

Therefore cheap migrant labor means cheap fruits and vegetables for all Americans, whether their states have an immigrant population or not. How did Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts "cope" with their lack of a cheap labor pool? By letting migrants in other states like California do the work of harvesting their food for them.


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