Monday, June 19, 2006

The Jobs Americans Won't Do

According to the Washington Post, the Bush administration's concern about employers who hire illegal immigrants is apparently very, very new.
Between 1999 and 2003, work-site enforcement operations were scaled back 95 percent by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which subsequently was merged into the Homeland Security Department. The number of employers prosecuted for unlawfully employing immigrants dropped from 182 in 1999 to four in 2003, and fines collected declined from $3.6 million to $212,000, according to federal statistics.

In 1999, the United States initiated fines against 417 companies. In 2004, it issued fine notices to three.
These numbers are especially interesting given that total immigration prosecutions rose 82% from 2003 to 2004, and that "immigration matters now represent the single largest group of all federal prosecutions, about one third (32%) of the total." Isn't that understandable, though, in the wake of 9/11? Not really. "Only seven out of the 37,765 prosecutions filed arising out of [DHS] immigration enforcement were classified as involving international terrorism during FY 2004, and only one out of 20,771 prosecutions involved international terrorism during FY 2003."

(These data are all from a nonpartisan clearinghouse at Syracuse University that does nothing but track federal staffing, spending, and enforcement, and man does that seem like a website a blogger could get lost in all day.)

The Post article doesn't present the statistics about prosecutions of individual immigrants; that would detract from its breathless lovefest between immigrant activists, employers, and politicians about the economic benefits of an endless influx of cheap and easily exploited laborers. The showcase story in the article is 1999's Operation Vanguard, in which (we are given to understand) INS investigators misguidedly went after the 19% of midwestern meatpackers with dubious citizenship papers, until industry lobbyists and their favorite Congressmen encouraged the INS to embrace the new multicultural heartland.
Congress "came to recognize that these people [...] had become a very important part of their community, churches, schools, sports, barbecues, families -- and most importantly the economy."
The meatpacking industry is presented to us as a prime case for the necessity of illegal immigrants - so let's take a closer look. Why are illegals so necessary in this industry? "White Americans are not going to apply for [meatpacking] jobs," an immigration activist tells the Post reporter, begging the question. Really? They really won't? Not at any salary? Not in any working conditions? Are we to believe that, without illegal immigrants, American cows would stand unslaughtered in the fields, and Americans would be reduced to subsisting on fair-trade tofu?

Of course not.
Thirty years ago, meatpacking was one of the highest-paid industrial jobs in the United States, with one of the lowest turnover rates. In the decades that followed the 1906 publication of The Jungle, labor unions had slowly gained power in the industry, winning their members good benefits, decent working conditions, and a voice in the workplace. Meatpacking jobs were dangerous and unpleasant, but provided enough income for a solid, middle-class life. There were sometimes waiting lists for these jobs. And then, starting in the early 1960s, a company called Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) began to revolutionize the industry, opening plants in rural areas far from union strongholds, recruiting immigrant workers from Mexico, introducing a new division of labor that eliminated the need for skilled butchers, and ruthlessly battling unions. By the late 1970s, meatpacking companies that wanted to compete with IBP had to adopt its business methods—or go out of business. Wages in the meatpacking industry soon fell by as much as 50 percent. Today meatpacking is one of the nation's lowest-paid industrial jobs, with one of the highest turnover rates. The typical plant now hires an entirely new workforce every year or so.
Maybe it's true that "white Americans," for which you should probably substitute "Americans of any color who have even a shred of employment choice, and even a whisper of a voice to speak up for themselves," aren't willing to work in today's meatpacking industry. But the argument that "immigrants take jobs that Americans don't want" is really the argument that "immigrants protect employers from having to offer acceptable wages and working conditions." The preferential prosecution of individual immigrants over the companies that hire them is ample evidence that the employers' interests are the first and only priority.

But again, nothing of this perspective was presented in the Post article. No, illegal immigrants and the companies that exploit them are all part of one big happy family, sharing their "community, churches, schools, sports, barbecues, familes," and their acceptance of workers suffering injury and disability for $9.50 an hour. Let's hear it for brotherhood.