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January 17, 2006

Dealing with Immigration: Increase Immigrant Rights

While I was on my honeymoon, the Drum Major Institute -- founded by among others Martin Luther King Jr.'s son -- released a good report highlighting one of the counterintuitive, but important imperatives that should underlie any immigration reform, namely that the best way to decrease problems from illegal immigration is to expand the rights of those immigrants.

This can seem odd at first blush but the reasoning, as the Drum Major Institute outlines, is relatively clear:

As long as a cheaper and more compliant pool of immigrant labor is available, employers are all too willing to take advantage of the situation to keep their labor costs down and are less willing to hire U.S.-born workers if they demand better wages and working conditions. So, U.S.-born workers are left to either accept the same diminished wages and degraded working conditions as immigrants living under threat of deportation or be shut out of whole industries where employers hire predominantly undocumented immigrants. The solution is to eliminate the second-class labor market in this two-tiered system and allow immigrants and U.S.-born workers to compete on an even playing field by guaranteeing immigrants—including undocumented workers—equal labor rights and making sure that employers cannot use deportation as a coercive tool in the labor market.
Or to put it a different way, it's employer demand that drives immigration and if employers can't use legal threats to pay undocumented workers less than native workers, a lot of the demand for that immigration will disappear. And for the immigration that continues, if wages are not pushed down, any costs of immigration to native workers will be far less and the gains from immigration will be enhanced through those immigrants having the ability to drive job creation through their greater consumer spending.

The logic of this approach is clear and the AFL-CIO and other labor groups are committed to it as public policy. The politics of the argument are "challenging", as the Drum Major Institute acknowledges, but the reality is that harsher attacks on immigrants are not likely to stem that immigration, but just increase their fear and isolation and drive their wages further down, and thereby make other workers even worse off.

But read the report. It's a good addition to the debate on immigration reform and labor rights.

Posted by Nathan at January 17, 2006 07:03 AM