Steven Roberts and I had an interesting conversation about We Wanted Workers at the American Enterprise Institute on Friday. The talk covered many of the issues that dominate the immigration debate. Enjoy!
There’s been a lot of criticism from free-market types since President-elect Trump announced the Carrier deal, which will keep around 1,000 jobs in Ohio (see the Larry Summers take here). Some of that criticism is warranted–in an ideal world, it would indeed be ideal to let the market decide who the winners and losers are. But there is also a lot of hypocrisy in many of the over-the-top reactions.
As an obvious example, I don’t recall much hand-wringing about the excessive labor market manipulation built into the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that President Obama and Senators Schumer, Rubio, et al, tried to ram through Congress a few years ago. So I thought it’d be fun to illustrate just how visible the invisible hand became in that context.
This screenshot is from bill S.844, describing job categories to be covered by a proposed “agricultural worker program.”
And this screenshot is the section of the bill stating what the salary must be for such jobs–down to the penny and year by year.
It seems to me that if the objective is simply to criticize government intervention in the labor market, the comprehensive immigration reform legislation would have provided ample opportunities. Do we really need Stalinist five-year plans stating precisely what the wage rate must be in particular occupations?
Which brings me to a related question: Who paid whom to get those hourly wage rates written into law?
Fidel Castro died last night at age 90. My first reaction upon reading the news this morning was “Good riddance!”
As I recount in We Wanted Workers, I have many not-so-wonderful memories of growing up in the very early years of Castro’s Cuba. It has always pained me to see Americans who are so ignorant of what a communist dictatorship is about singing praises to the Castro regime. It pains me even more to see people who should know better, like Pope Francis, saying that the “death of Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro was ‘sad news’ and that he was grieving and praying for his repose.”
Christopher Caldwell has a very thoughtful review of We Wanted Workers in the latest issue of the Claremont Review of Books. He raises so many interesting points that I am going to have to mull over them for a while. His concluding paragraph, and especially that last sentence, catches in a nutshell the core of the immigration debate these days:
If…immigration suppresses the wages of workers, and transfers much of their wealth to elites, then liberalized immigration is a policy that cannot be carried out without simultaneous injuries to democracy. For why would native workers favor a system that makes them poorer? Perhaps they have somehow been hoodwinked out of an accurate assessment of the effects of the system. Perhaps they have lost their purchase on democracy itself. Either way, in exchange for a nickel here and a nickel there, we appear to have created a political problem of considerable gravity.
It’s not often that I have much to say about these types of high-level government appointments. Typically, all I know is what I read in the papers. But this is one case where I do have some valuable private information.
I have met and “talked shop” with Senator Sessions a few times in the past. Those conversations always struck me as unusual. Unlike some other influential people in the immigration arena whom I have talked to, where I quickly began to suspect that their grasp of the nitty-gritty details was somewhat foggy, it was obvious that Senator Sessions was knowledgeable with and understood precisely what was going on in the immigration field.
Regardless of how one views his policy vision, there’s one thing we know for sure: The man at the helm of the Justice Department in the Trump administration, in charge of enforcing the immigration statutes, will be someone who has spent years studying the nooks and crannies of this obscure (and often incomprehensible) set of rules and regulations, who understands precisely how the immigration system is put together and is used (and misused) in the real world, and who strongly believes that the laws should be enforced. As I argued in an earlier blog post that provided some (unsolicited) advice to President-elect Trump, it seems to me that “enforcement first”–and specifically greatly slowing down the inflow of illegal immigrants–is a necessary first step if we are to have a sensible discussion about how to reform immigration policy. There isn’t a better qualified person in Washington to handle this job and to inform President-elect Trump about the various options.
On top of that, the senator is a very nice and approachable man, both in a professional and social setting. I always came away thinking that this must be what the “Southern gentleman” type is all about.
More than a few people have asked me in the past few days what advice, if any, I would give to President-elect Trump about immigration. Here are some more-or-less random thoughts that touch on a few of the policy issues that have to be confronted:
Enforcement First. The first step must be immediate action to greatly reduce the inflow of illegal immigrants. Illegal immigration has had a deeply corrosive impact on the immigration debate; it has paralyzed any rational discussion of how we should proceed along all other aspects of immigration reform. The open borders approach that allowed the entry of millions of illegal immigrants makes legal immigration policy “a travesty of a mockery of a sham.” Why bother waiting years abroad for that green card in the mail—such as the 23-year wait that some Filipino visa applicants are now enduring—when one can accomplish much of the same goal by running across the border or overstaying a tourist visa? I am not sure that a wall—despite its signal that we are finally getting serious about illegal immigration—will do the job; many of the illegal immigrants do not enter through the southern border. But I am willing to bet that the mandated adoption of an electronic system (such as E-Verify) that would force all employers to certify the visa status of all hires, along with very large fines and criminal penalties for law-breaking employers, would go a long way towards stemming the flow.
Benign Neglect. What to do about the 11+ million undocumented immigrants already living in the country? I think the wisest answer is: For the most part, ignore them! I find it very heartening that we do not have the stomach for such large-scale deportations. Most of those immigrants have led peaceful and uneventful lives in our country and became part of our communities. Their sudden removal would certainly not represent the America that many of us envision. I am also old enough to remember Daniel Patrick Moynihan being vilified for using the phrase “benign neglect” to discuss policy options regarding black economic progress in the late 1960s. Maybe it’s time to resurrect those words in the context of illegal immigration. Sometimes inaction is the best action. Most of the illegal immigrants already here will eventually qualify (if they haven’t qualified already) for visas through the family preference system. If the “enforcement first” step of stemming the illegal flow is successful, there can perhaps be eventual agreement on legislation that would accelerate the process of granting family preference visas to the existing undocumented population.