As American migrant workers took to the fields in the first harvest season after the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (the sweeping new federal law to control illegal immigration), Herminio Muñoz, a sixty-five-year-old Mexican-American from Progreso, Texas, told the Dallas Times Herald: “We think there is going to be a lot more work for us this year because of the law. In the past many of the farmers paid less because they could get all the workers they wanted. We have to believe the law is good.”
Given that Hispanic-Americans have in recent years been portrayed as favoring more immigration, not less, was the opinion expressed by Mr. Muñoz an anomaly, or perhaps only the opinion of a small segment of the citizen work force? Or was it in fact more representative of Hispanic-American attitudes than is generally believed? If so, are there other misconceptions about Hispanic-Americans and the immigration issue, and what accounts for them?
The fact of the matter is that nearly every poll ever conducted of Hispanic public opinion (as opposed to the attitudes of Hispanic leaders) has found that Hispanics in-the United States favor controls on immigration. Whether one consults the 1983 poll conducted by V. Lance Tarrance and Peter D. Hart (considered to be “Republican” and “Democratic” pollsters, respectively), or the Spanish International Network exit poll of Hispanics in the 1984 Texas Democratic Primary, or the June 1990 Roper poll, or various others, it is clear that the majority of Hispanics do not favor higher levels of immigration.
As is often observed, there is hardly an issue today over which Congress is more ambivalent than whether to limit or expand immigration. For example, in addition to the linchpin of the 1986 law, employer sanctions, which made it illegal for an employer to knowingly hire an illegal alien (thereby putting in place a mechanism with the potential for removing the principal attraction of illegal immigration), the Immigration Reform and Control Act also featured an amnesty provision, by which more than three million illegal aliens were eventually legalized (thereby feeding hopes that the breaking of U.S. immigration law might be officially forgiven yet again in the future). In 1990 Congress followed up on its decision to limit illegal immigration by significantly raising the levels of legal immigration.
Though their voices have not always been heard, certainly no ethnic group has been more visible in this policy debate than Hispanics, of whom at least 22.4 million now reside in the United States. Hispanics represent 8.4 percent of the U.S. population. During the 198G’s, when as many, or nearly as many, immigrants arrived as during any other ten-year period in U.S. history, the number of Hispanics grew by fully 7.7 million people (a 56 percent increase). No fewer than 54 percent of these additional individuals were immigrants. If current demographic trends continue, Hispanics could overtake African-Americans as the nation’s largest minority group by the year 2010.
More than 60 percent of legal immigrants to the United States reside in just five states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois; and perhaps a third of all immigrants, legal and illegal, settle in California alone. Along with Asians, reports the Aspen Institute, Hispanics are the most urbanized of all major U.S. groups, with “92 percent of all Hispanics residing in cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas.” Almost 40 percent of legal immigrants settle in only two greater metropolitan areas—Los Angeles and New York City. More persons of Mexican origin reside in Los Angeles today than in any city in Mexico, with the exception of Mexico City, the largest city on earth.
The views of writers such as journalist Ben Wattenberg and Julian Simon, a professor of business administration, have come to prevail in this policy debate. For them, massive immigration represents an unalloyed benefit. In this vein, the Hispanic Policy Development Project of the Aspen Institute adds that Hispanics “represent an aggregate $106 billion consumer market,” and Linda Chavez, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says Hispanic newcomers are assimilating at roughly the same rate as previous European immigrant groups, and are saving entire U.S. industries from collapse.
Yet, even as these arguments have gained national currency, a number of provocative reports are emerging that show the other side of the coin, one that looks surprisingly like what Mr. Muñoz describes—and far worse.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., has reported that in 1990 Hispanic poverty rates outstripped those of blacks for the first time, and that during the I980’s the earnings gap between mainstream Americans and Hispanics grew wider than between the mainstream and any other impoverished group. The 1991 annual report of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services points out that nearly 40 percent of Mexican-Americans lack health insurance, a rate three times that of whites and nearly twice as high as African-Americans. New York City and Los Angeles officials point out that Hispanics are suffering an extremely severe crisis in low-cost housing. The Hispanic Policy Development Project found in 1990 that “Hispanic families are less likely than others to be headed by a married couple and more likely to be headed by a single parent.” The results of the decline of two-parent families among poor blacks should raise a warning flag to anyone concerned with the future of poor Hispanics.
“Being undereducated is undoubtedly the single biggest obstacle to the overall economic assimilation of Hispanics,” concludes the Hispanic Policy Development Project. The Hispanic dropout rate hovers around 40 or 50 percent, the highest of any group. According to a January 1990 study by the American Council of Education, high-school completion rates for Hispanics aged 18 to 24 dropped from 62.8 percent in 1985 to 56 percent in 1989. Hispanic immigrant students may be dropping out at a rate as high as 70 percent, according to Washington, D.C.-based policy analyst Patrick C. Burns, of the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities.
Before assessing the impact of massive immigration on Hispanic-Americans, it is important to note that newcomers to this country have not caused the structural shift in the economy from manufacturing to services; nor have they spurred the flight of jobs to the suburbs and offshore; nor have they, by themselves, spawned the acute shortage of affordable housing. When made, such charges can justifiably be dismissed as scapegoating. But the argument made here is that it is one thing to allege unfairly that immigration has been the fundamental cause of these problems, and another thing to point out that massive immigration has exacerbated them.
Central to the debate over the impact of immigration are the questions of job displacement and the depression of wages and working conditions. Labor economists generally believe that the greater the number of workers vying for a single job, the lower the wages an employer is obligated to offer. In promoting the argument that massive low-skill immigrant labor can create more jobs, over time, the pro-immigrationists appear indifferent to what happens to low-skill, low-income citizens with whom the immigrants compete for jobs immediately upon arrival. How much unemployment, underemployment, or related suffering on the part of citizen workers is appropriate while immigration creates jobs for them? A month? Six months? Longer? Does raising the numbers of impoverished immigrants really help during times of rising unemployment? If the dynamics of immigration create more jobs and prosperity for all workers, as the immigration cheerleaders aver, why, after more than two decades of relentless massive immigration, are Hispanic wage-earners losing ground?
When asked if certain citizen workers are so injured by the growing concentration of immigrants that they are exiting certain secondary labor markets (whether leaving for new locales, or remaining in the same area and merely leaving the labor market in order to turn to welfare), these experts explain that they cannot concern themselves with such “discouraged” workers (to use the official government term) because their studies are rooted in microeconomics, not macroeconomics.
This “out of sight, out of mind” explanation is particularly inadequate when the experts are confronted with examples of displacement in the early 1980’s. Item: the apologists for massive immigration appear to blame the large-scale replacement of black workers by Hispanic immigrants in the hotel cleaning industry of Los Angeles on the blacks themselves, instead of acknowledging the obvious explanation that the immigrants depressed prevailing wages and systematically squeezed thousands of citizens out of the industry. To those who may suggest that the blacks left for greener pastures, some evidence indicates that this may have been the case for black women, but certainly not for black men. Their plight worsened.
Economist George J. Borjas reports finding little evidence of immigrants having displaced citizens or of having depressed their wages, while the Hispanic Policy Development Project encounters “little evidence to support the contention that Hispanics are taking away jobs from other Americans.” But as labor economist Vernon M. Briggs, Jr. has noted, Borjas has chosen to study data for entire Standard Statistical Metropolitan Areas that include not only the inner cities where the immigrants tend to work, but several surrounding counties as well. Therefore, by studying statistics from very large areas where the immigrants aren’t as well as where they are, evidence of their impact on the labor market is substantially diluted. That does not, however, mean they have had no impact. Moreover, there’s no way of ascertaining how many workers did not try their luck in immigrant-flooded labor markets, not only because of artificially depressed wages and a lack of affordable housing, but because Spanish—so sizable is the immigrant work force—has replaced English as the workplace language in a growing number of industries in the secondary labor market.
The Hispanic Policy Development Project’s perception of the issue is both curious and curiously stated. The issue is not about Hispanics, per se, displacing “other Americans,” but rather about the adverse impact of Hispanic immigrants on all citizens in certain labor markets—including citizens of Hispanic descent. Recently arrived immigrants and especially illegal aliens are not, by definition, “Americans,” if by the term is meant citizens of the United States. By failing to distinguish between Hispanic immigrants and U.S. citizens of Hispanic descent, the Project engages in a verbal sleight of hand, lumping both groups together. In consequence, the claims of Hispanic citizens about being adversely affected on the job market by legal or illegal Hispanic aliens are exorcised from the debate, if not from reality. When the proponents of massive immigration are ready to concede that adverse impact does occur, they cavalierly explain it away by noting that, after all, the only real impact is in Hispanic neighborhoods anyway. The message of this explanation and of the general tendency to exalt ethnicity over citizenship is that Hispanic-Americans are not “real” Americans. To such tangled webs do arguments of the Hispanic leadership too often lead.
The savings resulting from employing a Mexican lettuce picker or a Salvadoran busboy are, at least in part, passed on to consumers in the form of lower prices. But other related costs are borne by citizen taxpayers and low-income citizen minority workers and their families. These include: social services, both in terms of non-reimbursed publicly funded services extended to immigrants, and heightened competition for poor citizens seeking those services; depressed wages and working conditions for citizen workers; and the intensification of the shortage in low-cost housing. Not paid for directly, as to the cashier in a checkout line, these costs are hidden. They represent a de facto labor market subsidy to employers, who have come to view private gain off public domain as a God-given right.
The cost of educating immigrant schoolchildren has been overwhelming in the states of California, Texas, and Florida, where fully 65 percent of the nation’s Hispanic children reside. Researchers have found that of the 613,222 English-deficient students in California in the spring of 1987, only 10 percent were born in the United States. Of the total number of students not fluent in English, no fewer than 73 percent were Spanish-speaking. At a time when many California schools are on a year-round schedule and massive teacher reductions are necessitated by budget constraints, it’s only natural to ask why our nation’s immigration policy continues to be blind to the educational resource limitations of its largest state. This is not to imply that immigrant schoolchildren already here should not be educated, but rather that they should be educated better by making available to them the resources that will otherwise have to be diluted among ever-growing numbers of new arrivals in the future.
An increasing number of students come from families lacking adequate housing. Some may double or triple up in apartments meant for one family. A truly egregious example of the Hispanic housing crisis evolved in Los Angeles in the 1980’s with the phenomenon of the “garage people”—some 200,000 or more low-income, largely Hispanic individuals, including families, who reside in garages featuring no running water and only makeshift electrical connections.
While fewer low-rent housing units in the housing stock have intensified the shortage of affordable housing since 1978, an increase in the number of poor families has likewise been a factor. In Hispanic-American communities, recent immigration is responsible for a very large portion of that increase in poor families. Borjas’ observation that a 10 percent increase in the immigrant flow doubles the immigrant population in those few cities in which the newcomers settle has implications for the housing crisis of Hispanic-Americans that even Messrs. Wattenberg and Simon might be able to comprehend—that is, if they were to abandon their air of studied unreality.
Unlike a labor surplus, which results in the reduction in wages offered, a surplus of housing seekers results in an increase in rents demanded—not just for the immigrants, of course, but for everyone seeking housing in the neighborhoods in which they settle. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which analyzed federal data released in 1989, some 40 percent of poor Hispanic households paid at least 70 percent of their income for housing costs in 1985. Impoverished Hispanic-Americans seeking federally funded housing were particularly harmed when Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, recently defended the idea that illegal aliens have the same right to public housing as U.S. citizens.
Political power plays leveraged by massive increases in immigration have, in general, boomeranged on Hispanic- Americans, undermining the socioeconomic assimilation that has traditionally fostered true political power in the United States. Normally such political acculturation has evolved from individual attainments that may in turn help the individual to recognize class interest that transcends ethnicity, as opposed to succumbing to sheer tribalist politics. The real story of Hispanic politics in the last two decades is how little a skyrocketing population has contributed to Hispanic political clout. Hispanics today comprise only 1 percent of the nation’s elected officials because a disproportionate lack of citizenship and a disproportionate number of under-voting-age youth render many Hispanics ineligible to vote, even as poverty distracts many who are eligible from exercising their right.
The impact of chronic massive immigration has reinforced the feeling among some disadvantaged Hispanic-Americans that they are without a country, that they are neither of the United States nor of the Latin American nations they or their forefathers left; that they are neither fish nor fowl. Even when, as is more often the case, Hispanic-Americans cling to their citizenship, exhibiting patriotism at every turn, they are increasingly victimized by the growing tendency of their own government and fellow citizens not of Hispanic descent to blur the distinction between Hispanic aliens and Hispanic citizens. To ask these particular Americans to stifle their concerns about massive impoverished immigration is to ask them to aspire to a status below that of their fellow citizens of European origin.
Which, come to think of it, may be what the most fervid proponents of massive immigration have in mind. Now that the visages of Uncle Tom and Uncle Remus have gone with the wind, the country is left only with the unique vision of Wall Street Journal editorials that pat browns sans green cards on the head for working hard and scared. Certain businesses and their boosters may also savor the tendency of immigrants, especially the illegal ones, to keep quiet about silly notions like prevailing wage rates and decent working conditions. Is it humanitarianism toward poor Hispanics or a yearning for their cheap and exploitable labor that explains the Wall Street Journal‘s famous call for open borders?
Hispanic leaders routinely make common cause with the employers of alien labor because both are interested in seeing the numbers grow. Hispanic leaders by themselves lack the clout to set the nation’s immigration policy, however, and to the degree that their names are invoked in that policy debate, it has been done to attempt to legitimize the maneuverings of their more powerful allies.
The impact of massive immigration figures to grow as experts project the doubling of the labor force of both Mexico and other Caribbean Basin countries in the next twenty-five years. (Mexico has recently been successful in lowering its birthrate, but at its lowest, Mexico still exceeds the U.S. birthrate at the height of our baby boom.)
Closing the southern border is not the answer. For one thing, Mexicans account for only about 28 percent of legal newcomers, according to immigration expert David Simcox. In any event, U.S. immigration policy should be blind to both color and national origin. Moreover, greater commerce between the United States and Mexico is too important to be interrupted. While trade and investment means a greater flow of goods and services, however, it should not mean an unregulated flow of people. Blurring this key distinction only promises to spur immigration-related discord between the two nations, and that would harm no U.S. group more than Hispanic-Americans. Should North American free trade materialize, immigration scholars generally believe that its economic benefits will not alleviate massive Mexican immigration for generations, if then; in fact, it may initially spawn more, as the money required to migrate is attained more quickly, along with the work place qualifications demanded in the United States.
Meanwhile, Linda Chavez’s assertion that low-wage immigrants have “saved” certain industries notwithstanding, their labor represents but a temporary fix to those enterprises. Michael S. Teitelbaum, the former staff director of Congress’s Select Committee on Population, observes that the garment industry, for example, is doomed here not because of the presence or absence of immigrant workers, but because the industry is poorly structured, undercapitalized, and incapable of sustained competition from more efficient offshore competitors. Economist Philip Martin says that of the three ways by which productivity can be enhanced—capital, technology, and more labor—more labor is the least efficient. The jobs that Messrs. Wattenberg, Simon, et al., credit impoverished immigrants with creating are passé. Sweatshops are an industry America should be ditching.
We as a nation should be worrying why our chief competitors are choosing to limit immigration and capitalize upon the efficiencies of robotics and automation. Having initially invented them, how and why did we lose these technologies to others? One obvious answer is that a ready recourse to massive, low-wage, low-skill labor has served as a disincentive to modernize our methods of production. Declining productivity and a chronically expanding underclass is helping to prevent the nation from “migrating” into the brave new world of competitiveness and a higher standard of living for all. The assimilation of the present underclass, including recent, impoverished immigrants, is best achieved by curtailing immigration, rather than willfully promoting or acquiescing in more.
Not for the first time in recent years. Congress has opted for the illogical. Under the 1990 law to expand legal admissions, one million immigrants or more are expected to enter the United States beginning in November 1991. Unless U.S. immigration policy is altered, the decade of the 1990’s will witness the highest levels of immigration for any ten-year period in American history.
In contrast, the national interest would be best served by the vigorous enforcement of employer sanctions, something that is not being done more than four years after the provision was passed; a reasonable curtailment of legal immigration, here defined as no more than 500,000 a year (which would still have the United States resettling more legal newcomers than any other nation, surely a respectable benchmark for humanitarianism); and the replacement of our current nepotistic entry criteria with those based on skills and education instead. Even Borjas, like fellow economist Barry Chiswick before him, has stressed that the nation is failing to attract the highly qualified immigrants it needs.
Leaving our current immigration policy on automatic pilot without regard to the peaks and valleys of radically altered economic circumstances could promote a leveling down of American society, which in turn could be accompanied by an intensification of tribalist politics; ethnic and linguistic separatism; and finally, the further debasement of the coin of individual initiative, freedom, and liberty. Borjas, who finds little evidence of the adverse impact of immigrants on the labor market, and who appears to have become an economist because he lacked the verve of an accountant, admits, albeit in a footnote, that “the birth of an immigrant underclass and the presence of large numbers of unassimilated immigrants living in segregated ghettos may be a potential source of serious political and social problems in the future.” As a last resort, the golden door could be slammed shut.
Those who counsel continued massive immigration today on the grounds that the great European wave of the early 20th century “made it” downplay, dismiss, or ignore the assimilating effects of some forty years of greatly curtailed immigration after 1924. The fact that the closing of the door at the time was conducted with racist intent by no means implies that the ebb failed to benefit the immigrants already here.
In sum, the evidence shows that Hispanic-Americans have emerged as the greatest victims of U.S. immigration policy since 1965, instead of its greatest beneficiaries. The notion that Hispanics in this country favor more immigration, while the rest of America favors less, is a false one that has poisoned the debate for too long. This distortion must be corrected, especially by those who explicitly claim to represent Hispanic-Americans or who profess to care what Hispanic-Americans opine on the issue of immigration.
Weighing the impact of massive immigration on the largest group of Hispanic-Americans almost a quarter century ago, the late Professor George I. Sanchez of the University of Texas wrote: “The most serious threats to an effective program of acculturation in the Southwest have been the population movements from Mexico: first, by illegal aliens . . . Unless we can end the legal or illegal entry of large numbers of Mexican aliens, much of the good work that state and federal agencies are doing will go for naught; much more time and effort and many more millions of dollars will be required to bring Texas and her sister states to a desirable cultural level.”
Hispanic-Americans who dare voice support for immigration controls today are routinely attacked and ostracized for allegedly wanting to “selfishly pull up the ladder” after themselves. Their critics ignore three basic points: that from the colonial period until the present time, there have always been limits on immigration to this country, whether de facto or de jure; that responsible arguments for numerical limits are extremely generous by global standards; and that even if the charge of hypocrisy were valid, the critics would still be obligated to address the argument that massive immigration is not good for the nation as a whole.
If viewed as a high jump event, today’s Hispanic workers have had the bar set much higher than was the case for their European counterparts earlier in the century, without possessing a higher level of skill. No great manufacturing boom lies on the horizon to catapult today’s impoverished immigrants into the middle class, as occurred for European immigrants and their families after World War II. And unlike that particular cohort, there is no end in sight to the current wave of immigration. The “breathing space” of assimilation is growing more and more limited for today’s Hispanic immigrant.
The good news is that a certain number of Hispanics are doing well—Cuban-Americans and the Mexican-American middle class, for example, as well as a small but growing number of South Americans. But crafting social and economic policies based on the attainments of successful Hispanics, as opposed to attacking the problems plaguing impoverished Hispanics, is adventuresome at best. The recent history of the African-American underclass, and in particular of the decline of the two-parent family, must serve as a warning. Policymakers need the entire motion picture, not just the select still frames that have so misled Congress in this debate.
As the United States stands triumphant over the discredited totalitarians of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, who for decades refused their own citizens the right freely to leave their countries, let us be vigilant against our own ideological extremists who, swept up in a frenzy of libertarian or liberal jihad, would proceed to strip America’s borders of all prudent regulation and unwittingly drive rich and poor even further apart, helping to erode the very bulwark of our nationhood, the middle class, in the process.
Through its exaggerated emphasis on numbers and nepotism, current U.S. immigration policy helps to impede assimilation, stymie bootstrapping, nurture welfare dependency, intensify tribalist politics, prolong labor intensiveness, and undermine productivity and competitiveness. The American people—including Hispanic-Americans—should challenge this policy lapse on the part of Congress with renewed vigor, disdaining options born of genuine racism, but also parrying spurious charges of racism designed to choke a debate the advocates of ever-greater immigration have found impossible to win on merit.
The citizenry would do well to remind their representatives of the wise counsel of Abraham Lincoln, who said, in the midst of a full-blown crisis of unity: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. . . . As our case is new, so must we think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”