The Corner

Major Quibble

In “California’s Illegal-Immigrant Deficit,” Heather Mac Donald asserts that “the education, health-care, and criminal-justice costs of illegal immigrants and their progeny is no help in staunching the red ink” of California’s budget deficit.

Since when have conservatives started judging the economic worth of groups by the balance of tax expenditures? The government runs a tax profit on single, childless Princeton professors; a Mormon family with 7 kids, a full-time working father, and a full-time housewife mom generates an annual tax deficit.  Elderly retirees are a net drain, as are children generally. The rich bring in revenue, the poor do not. We don’t talk of deporting these groups.

Since the objection against illegals is that they are illegal, why not say that? Why suggest that their tax balance indicates their economic worth?

It is not really Heather Mac Donald I am calling out. It is Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, who validated this style of immigration analysis on the Movement Right.

In the 1980s, supply-siders opined that congressional Republicans, obsessed with public-sector balances, had lost sight of the private-sector incentives that accounted for 80% of GDP. The GOP had become the “tax collector for the welfare state.” Conservatives of that era sought to protect markets, including the market for labor, from the taxes and regulation of government bureaucrats. That is the real context of the Reagan immigration policy, which, along with the Kemp-Roth tax cuts, gave us the strongest economy in the world.

The “sophisticated” economic argument of contemporary deportationists is that in a technologically erudite society, one with a welfare system, low-cost labor is economically disadvantageous. But who is naïve enough to believe this? In industry after industry, there is a mix of wage levels and skill levels. The existence of high-value-added jobs may depend on the availability of low-skill, low-wage jobs in the same industry.

If you doubt this, go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment page, and download the wage charts of any industry in which illegals are employed. There you will find a rich mix of specialties, skills, and wages. Here are some examples from the agricultural specialties:

  Agricultural specialties and average annual wages

  Job desription av annual wage
1 Farmworkers and laborers $ 17,700.00
2 Delivery Truck Drivers $ 24,050.00
3 Secretaries $ 24,430.00
4 Pesticide sprayers $ 26,650.00
5 Farm Equipment Mechanics $ 27,250.00
6 Agricultural & Food Scientists $ 28,350.00
7 Bookkeepers & Auditors $ 28,830.00
8 Heavy Truck Drivers $ 30,620.00
9 Veterinarian technicians $ 31,180.00
10 Salesmen $ 49,850.00
11 Farm Managers $ 52,990.00
12 Soil & Plant Scientists $ 54,890.00
13 Veterinarians $ 77,460.00
14 Farmers and Ranchers

$ 81,400.00

Upon this base of laborers in the field — most of them migrant and undocumented — an entire world of American blue-collar, white-collar, and capitalist enterprise is built. The existence of these “specialties” depends on the ability of American growers and ranchers to access low-wage labor in America at rates that make their produce competitive in international markets. And that is why every Farm Bureau and every ranch association in America advocates for guest worker programs that legalize the status of experienced, competent migrant field hands.

In the affluent Kansas City suburb where I live, there are few illegals. One is likeliest to encounter them in the work crews that offer landscaping, tree trimming, and lawn maintenance at bargain-basement rates. It is not a unionized field, and there is no doubt that they displace some American workers. But the work is seasonal, and most adult American workers don’t do “seasonal.”

This low-wage work may add thousands of dollars to the real-estate value of a suburban home. This in turn affects wages, commissions, and the return on capital throughout the entire residential real-estate industry. And the migrant working in a crew this year may be running his own crew next year. Or he may branch out into gardening.

My point is that the “value added” of low-wage work penetrates the larger economy in innumerable subtle ways. It is impossible to measure that value from the tax balance of the individual “illegal” household. Why would a conservative try?   

The hallmark of a free society is not wage minima, or protected jobs, but freedom for individuals to acquire the skills and experience that increase their value in the wage market. And if some of those wanting to better themselves in this way are immigrants, I say make room for them.

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