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Undocumented workers: essential but unwanted

Undocumented workers are cast by the hysterical as enemies of the state, but they are essential to the U.S. economy. We use them for their labor but decry their presence. We're all complicit.

October 11, 2010|Gregory Rodriguez

If Meg Whitman loses the gubernatorial race because her actions didn't jive with her words on illegal immigration, she could become a sacrificial lamb for the rest of us. Her sin is our sin. Because where illegal immigration is concerned, we are all hypocrites.

At the second gubernatorial debate held in Fresno two weekends ago, Democratic nominee Jerry Brown had a field day with Whitman's less than elegant response to the revelation that she had employed a maid, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, who was an illegal immigrant. When Diaz Santillan confessed that she was undocumented, Whitman fired her but stopped short of reporting her to immigration authorities. Brown's point was that Whitman's position — crack down on employers of illegal immigrants — didn't allow for any wiggle room. In one scathing exchange, Brown told Whitman, "You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions, but you don't take accountability."

But is Whitman all that different from the rest of us?

When it comes to illegal immigration, nobody seems to take responsibility, and we are all, through action or inaction, complicit.

It should be no surprise that illegal immigration is one of the primary means by which the U.S. economy gains access to low-skilled, low-cost labor. As the share of low-skilled native-born Americans falls — in 1960 half of U.S.-born working-age adults had not completed high school, compared with 8% today — employers have become ever more dependent on illegal immigration as a steady source of cheap labor.

Some sectors are more dependent than others. According to a 2009 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, 40% of the nation's brickmasons, 37% of drywall installers, 28% of dishwashers, 27% of maids and housekeepers, and 21% of parking-lot attendants are undocumented. In California, those percentages are likely to be higher. A 2006 survey by the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that a majority of California's farmworkers have no papers.

So whatever your feelings about illegal immigration, if you eat vegetables, enjoy restaurants, reside in a house built in the last 30 years or ever let a valet park your car, the chances are you're implicated in the hypocritical politics that allows 7 million to 8 million people to work illegally in the country.

Why don't these immigrants come here legally? Because the U.S. grants only about 150,000 visas annually for temporary low-skilled laborers, a paltry percentage of the number of such workers that the economy easily absorbs yearly.

This charade — closing our eyes to illegal labor (or even scapegoating illegal immigrants, a la Arizona) while refusing to make our immigration system responsive to our economic needs — is nothing new. In the post- World War II years, even as one arm of the government (the U.S. Department of Labor) was actively recruiting Mexican guest laborers, another (the Immigration and Naturalization Service) was throwing them out. By 1976, the comptroller general of the U.S. explained in a report that "the border is a revolving door.... We repatriate undocumented workers on a massive scale ... and significant numbers promptly reenter."

That duplicitous exchange got even more dishonest in the 1980s after President Reagan recast illegal immigration as a national security issue even as he signed a major amnesty for those already in the country. That heralded in the current era of hysterical rhetoric, border walls and beefed-up enforcement. Fifteen years later, a heightened fear of unsecured borders after 9/11 made it even more difficult to reconcile the need for labor with political rhetoric. Once illegal immigrants had been cast as enemies and threats to the state, how could one effectively argue for the nation's need for their labor?

And the more we blamed those awful illegals for coming to this country, the less willing we became to claim any responsibility for their being here, or for treating them decently. As illegal immigrants were increasingly cast as a threat, Americans cast themselves as victims.

We all participate in illegal immigration, not least by refusing to face the paradox. And it has terrible costs, including "stateless" young people who can't go to college and get ahead and a shadow population that is easily and often exploited. Illegal immigration is morally corrosive to all those who participate in it. The enormous power imbalance between immigrants without papers and everyone else poisons our sense of fairness and responsibility.

Brown and Whitman will continue their bickering, and voters will side with one or the other. But the larger truth is that contemporary illegal immigration has turned us all into a nation of hypocrites.

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