There is one issue being overlooked in all of the comment surrounding the anti-immigration legislation recently introduced in the Arkansas legislature.
The most controversial bill, Senate Bill 206, is sponsored by Sen. Jim Holt and is intended to prevent illegal immigrants from claiming state benefits or registering to vote. It proved an easy target for critics, including Gov. Mike Huckabee, who pointed out that the federal government requires states to make many aid programs available to anyone in need, regardless of citizenship status. Furthermore, they point out, it is heartless and shortsighted to deny something like prenatal care to a pregnant immigrant whose child will be a U.S. citizen at birth.
That said, this episode is yet another example of how the immigration debate in Arkansas and nationwide never touches the fundamental issues: Do we want to limit immigration at all? If so, how do we enforce the laws? If not, how will that affect our economy, and how do we provide for our national security in an age of terrorism?
After all, if Holt and his allies have a point (and I’m being generous here), it is where they argue that our laws are not being enforced. But they overlook the fact that the illegal immigrants they condemn wouldn’t be here in the first place if businesses were not illegally employing them.
Anyone who hires an illegal immigrant cannot claim ignorance of the matter. A fake Social Security number will bring a letter from the IRS, assuming the employer files the tax information in the first place.
Businesses that exploit illegal immigrant labor reap many benefits. Of course, they can pay the workers less than minimum wage, often off the books. They can hire and fire at will, knowing that the immigrants are desperate for jobs. Illegal immigrants cannot organize or bring lawsuits if they are injured or otherwise treated unfairly.
By taking advantage of these benefits, businesses that use illegal workers have an edge over any competition that actually abides by the law. And for every illegal immigrant they pay at a reduced rate, there is a citizen who is denied a job that would garner at least minimum wage, which contributes to a higher unemployment rate and less money overall circulating in the retail economy.
Needless to say, many business owners like this arrangement, and that is why they favor loose enforcement of immigration laws. They want to maintain a cheap labor pool, which explains why President Bush — not usually the champion of the underdog — is advocating for guest worker visas and other measures to ease the passage of people across our borders. It is foolish to believe that he has the interests of immigrants in mind. As always, he is listening to corporate interests, but he can claim that he is motivated by compassion.
With this in mind, Holt should be denounced as a hypocrite. At one point, he said, “I just want to uphold the law,” and explained, “I would be doing a disservice to my children as a father to continue to let them do things illegal or wrongly without correcting them.” His partner in this effort, an anti-immigration activist named Joe McCutchen, also said, “Doggone it, the rule of law is not being upheld, and that’s wrong.”
If enforcing the law is their interest, Holt and McCutchen could target the well-educated business owners who know the law and are willfully violating it for profit. Instead they are going after the basic social benefits enjoyed by a defenseless group of underprivileged people. Perhaps they thought it would be easier to demagogue against individuals with a different skin hue than to challenge some of the most powerful interests in the state.
It is certainly easier than dealing with the complexities of the issue, which can be distilled to this:
There is a demand for cheap labor that illegal immigration satisfies, and the efficiencies that result translate to cheaper consumer products, which benefit the entire economy. If we acknowledge this, then we realize that it doesn’t make sense to strictly enforce immigration laws. Then why have them in the first place? Because, ironically, if we didn’t have the laws to break, then you couldn’t have the cheaper labor, because the immigrants would be legal, and you would have to pay them at least the minimum wage.
So when it comes to immigration, big business and liberal social activists agree: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
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Are you sick of the election yet? One thing that seems certain is that our politics remain as hyperpartisan and dysfunctional as ever. I may be naive, but I think Arkansas has an opportunity to help lead the country back toward pragmatic progress on the issues that will make our families and communities stronger.