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January 24, 2003

The Dumbest Argument Against Immigration

From FrontPage magazine comes the tired dumbest argument against immigration (one repeated at times on right and left), namely that:

the Law of Supply and Demand applies to labor as much as to any other thing that is bought and sold. That is to say, if one increases the supply of labor relative to demand, its price will fall.

That price is your salary, friend. And mass immigration is inexorably driving it down.

Why's this dumb? Because it assumes that the amount of capital to hire workers (the supposed demand in this simplistic Econ 101 model) is unchangeable.

But if workers don't come to the US, capital can go south in search of them. Don't want engineers from India coming to the US? Capital will happily go to India.

When people talk about a global economy, that includes a global labor market-- which may not operate perfectly like Econ 101, but then it doesn't within the United States either. And the key to raising wages in the US is to raise wages globally, so that there is no low wage centers pulling jobs away from workers here.

As long as workers are fleeing poverty through immigration to the US, that is a sign of impoverishment that can only beckon $1 per day jobs from big capital. If wages are raised, there will be less pressure for immigration here.

And how to raise wages globally? The first is to strengthen labor rights in regimes like China and other countries where workers can be fired for demanding decent pay or organizing collectively. Trade agreements should be used not just to enforce intellectual property rights or defend the free flow of capital, but should defend the rights of labor to unionize and organize, as guaranteed under the International Labor Organization convenants that many countries have signed but almost as many fail to fully enforce.

And an even better place to start is to make sure that immigrant workers here in the US are not exploited and forced to accept wages that directly undercut wages for other workers in the US. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court in Hoffman Plastics v. NLRB held that undocumented immigrants had no rights under our labor laws, meaning that employers can look the other way at fake documents than call in the INS when those workers demand that fair wages be paid.

This means that up to 11 million workers in the US are basically uncovered by labor laws, driving down wages for all other workers as they become a pool of exploitable people.

In some states, new legislation has been filed to reverse some of the effects of Hoffman by statute. See this background page by the California ACLU.

If you care about the effects of immigration on wages, strengthening all workers rights, including those of the immigrants, is the only real solution.

Posted by Nathan at January 24, 2003 11:51 AM

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