STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: This segment of "The Study Room" features a debate between me and my colleague Vernon Briggs, who teaches immigration policy at the ILR School. As you will see, we take very different views of the current immigration reform proposals now pending in Congress. Sit back and enjoy the fireworks.
Hi, I'm Steve Yale-Loehr. I teach immigration law at Cornell Law School. And here with me today is Vernon Briggs who teaches labor economics at the ILR School. We're going to be talking about some of the proposals to reform immigration now pending before Congress and see if they can actually make a change in our immigration system.
Vernon, we've already discussed the fact that there are these proposals pending before Congress. Why don't you give me your overview of whether you think they're going to do anything good or not?
VERNON BRIGGS: I don't think that major proposals that are being put forth will have any impact whatsoever on illegal immigration. They may make it go away in terms of statistical numbers but will have no impact on the issue itself. That is, legalization just changes illegal immigrants into legal immigrants. And it doesn't do anything to stop the immigration problem from reoccurring.
In my view, the guts of the issue remedies ought to deal with enforcement of employer sanctions, which is what the law requires. The major problem with illegal immigration is people working. And the workplace is the magnet that attracts illegal immigrants. And until we force employer sanctions, the rest of these proposals will never deal with the real heart of stopping illegal immigration or reducing it.
STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: OK. Well there are two components to most of the proposals pending in Congress. One deals with temporary workers and whether we should have a separate temporary worker provision that doesn't exist now. And the second deals with trying to legalize current undocumented workers in the United States. Let's break those down to each of those components.
First in terms of temporary workers, many of the proposals-- including that by the President-- would create a new temporary worker program to allow people who aren't here currently legally an opportunity to work legally in the United States for a set number of years. Why isn't that a good thing?
VERNON BRIGGS: Well, basically, because it legalizes-- it seems to legitimize the illegal process. They're not supposed to be here. They're not supposed to be working. And you're essentially giving them what they sought in violation of what the whole intention of the law is. On the other hand, the experience with these things-- which we have plenty of experience over the years-- are that the guest worker programs depress wages of the workers in those industries-- the native-born worker-- which makes it a self-fulling prophecy that the other workers will not be attracted to that industry in the future. It also depresses the wages of immigrants who are already working in those industries who are legally in the United States today.
It adds to the social costs in these communities since the guest worker-- in most of these proposals, they're allowing them, talking about bringing their families and all of that with them. That means these local communities are going to have to find housing, the medical costs or social costs, their school costs, their crime costs. It dramatically increases the cost of all these things. And the fundamental issue is it doesn't deal with stopping illegal immigration.
STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: Well, I disagree with you, respectfully. I think that these are people who are here already. We've already tried, since 1986, to control illegal immigration through employer sanctions. We've tripled the size of our border patrol on the southern border. We have billions of dollars now going to enforcement. Yet despite all those efforts we now have about 9 million people already in the United States working illegally.
There's nothing that we could do to make these people go away. So I think it's better if we legalize them, bring them out of the shadows so that we know who they are, so that they can work legally, they can get minimum wage, they can get the protections that they currently don't get under our labor laws. And I think that would do a lot for our economy.
VERNON BRIGGS: But what it means is, basically, five years from now, we're going to have to do it again and then again. And then, ultimately, what most of these proposals basically do is that they're linked to legalization in some process or renewals or what have you. And there's no guarantee these people are going to stay in agriculture or whatever industry they're in. We haven't talked yet about whether we're talking about purely agriculture or just turning them loose into the labor market, which is sort of what President Bush's proposal is.
These people don't know what industry they're going to end up in. And all of those people will be very grateful to work for the minimum wages or less that'll be provided for them.
STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: But if we legalize them, they won't be less than minimum wage. They'll at least be getting minimum wage. They will be able to enforce the labor rights that they can't currently do. So why isn't that a good thing?
VERNON BRIGGS: Well most of studies of illegal immigrants show that they do get the minimum wage. I mean, in the Fair Labor Standards Act, all you can do is enforce the minimum. You can't enforce anything higher than that. And, in fact, the overwhelming evidence I've seen is that illegal immigrants do get the minimum wage. Some don't, and that's obviously of deep concern. But I don't think it automatically guarantees to these people that any wages are going to get any higher.
And if they don't get any higher, then you're simply using government policy to artificially depress the labor market, which means US citizen workers will never be attracted to those industries. Now, if they just stay in one industry, you can write off one industry like we did in 1986 with the agriculture industry. We simply gave a SAW Program that essentially go out a million people to adjust their status suddenly in the agriculture industry. And they simply said to American workers, well, in order to get employer sanctions for the rest of you, we're going to simply dramatically increase the supply of labor in your sector of the economy.
And wages are never going to go up. And it's not surprising we have talks about shortages of assisting workers not to do that work.
STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: Well, I think that's a different debate. I think if we want to increase the minimum wage then Congress should address that issue. But that's something that applies across the board and not just because they're immigrants or not. If you look at studies-- if you look at, for example, the Labor Department saying of the 30 industries experiencing growth over the next 10 years or so, 20 of them are in low-skill areas. There are a lot of essential workers. We simply don't have enough people in right now.
Our economy is aging. We're going to have fewer workers. And that result is we're going to have fewer workers down the road. And I think we need to have legal immigration to be able to offset some of those shortages.
VERNON BRIGGS: Well, to begin with, we have no shortage of low-wage workers. That's the premise here. And there are 34 million low-wage workers in the United States. That is workers earning less than $8.76 an hour-- that's what's called so-called living wage. And that's even above the minimum there. That's 34 million people, workers. And there's no indication that there's any shortage of people to do those jobs.
There's shortages of people willing to do the jobs at some of the wages employers want to offer. And that's basically what these guest worker programs are all about. Employers want to get workers at a wage they want to pay not a wage that the market wants to pay. That's all I'm saying. And the market forces ought to drive the wages up. As wages go up, people should be attracted to them.
We can also do a lot of things to make these low-wage labor markets more attractive-- like in agriculture, for example, ending the exclusion from the National Labor Relations protection for agriculture workers. If anybody's serious about finding farm workers in the United States, let's stop treating them as second-class workers, the citizen workers who do work in that industry. And we can raise the minimum wage. There's other things that I'm all for.
But to the degree that you simply use immigration policy-- a guest worker policy-- to increase the supply of workers simply because employers claim they can't find workers when they don't want to pay higher wages, which is what a market force would say they have to do-- well, I don't think that's right.
STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: Well, I certainly agree with you that we should be able to enforce labor protections for all workers, including agricultural workers. And that's a real travesty that we aren't doing that right now. In terms of some of the other aspects-- you know, there's concern already that more and more companies are outsourcing a lot of their jobs overseas. And that affects both high-skilled and low-skilled workers.
If we don't have enough workers in the United States, that trend, I think, is going to increase. So I think bringing in immigrants to fulfill those kinds of needed jobs in the United States, I think, can help stem the possible problem of outsourcing.
VERNON BRIGGS: Well, now, we're slipping over into legal immigration. We're talking about illegal immigration and guest worker programs with response to illegal immigration.
STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: And I am, too. And I'm saying these are people who are here already. But I think that, if we keep them here legally, that's going to be a way for the companies to feel more secure about keeping their jobs in the United States.
VERNON BRIGGS: Then it does nothing to stop the continuation of this problem. It goes on and on. And there are additional costs, as you will find with these programs. I mean, nobody can support themselves on the federal minimum wage in the United States-- no family person. And they are going to be heavy social costs for these communities in which those workers are to be found. And all you're doing is simply saying that the public sector is going to have to subsidize the private sector so it can have cheap labor.
A lot of these jobs can't go away. Some of them will. And we talk about outsourcing in another context. But agriculture workers, many of these service jobs-- they can't go away. They've got to be provided where the people are. And I think that the answer is not to simply increase the supply of workers-- of illegal workers-- in those industries. Let's let the market force drive up the wages to attract people to do those jobs.
If they're important enough to be done, they're important enough to be rewarded. And a salary's commensurate with the responsibilities of doing the task if the task is important. But this was government intervention into a labor market-- into an illegal act. If you illegally entered the country, you're not supposed to be here.
That's why I said go back to where I started, employer sanctions. If you're enforcing the labor law or employment laws, that's the only way we're ever going to get a handle on illegal immigration, to cut off that magnet. And if after we're really enforcing our employer sanctions, then I might go along with some of these guest worker programs or legalization things later on. But I'm not going to go down the trail I did in 1986 where we had employer sanctions. We give them amnesty. And then we don't employ the employer sanctions.
STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: And I agree. And that was a problem that Congress did. They didn't give enough money to the immigration agency to really vigorously enforce employer sanctions. And you and I agree on that.
But I'm not saying that we should import more foreign workers into the United States. I'm saying that those people who are here already illegally should be given a chance to work here, number one, temporarily legally to prove their continued adherence to our society and then earn their way to legalization-- which ties into the second aspect of many of these proposals, which is an ultimate legalization. The President's proposal would only give them a temporary worker possibility. It would say, we want you to go home after three or some other time period of years whereas many of the other proposals would say, well, we'll give them a temporary worker provision. But we'll also have an earned legalization program down the road. Isn't that a good idea?
VERNON BRIGGS: Well, I don't think it's a good idea to give them legalization in this process. I've supported the legalization in 1986 very strongly because immigration laws were confused. But we've had seven amnesties in one form or the other since 1986. And it's gotten to become a regular process in which people simply come here and expect that, if they come here illegally, somebody's eventually going to give them an amnesty.
And the president's proposal-- yes, he says it's temporary. But he allows it to be renewed, at least for, I think, a three-year initial period and, maybe, three-year renewals in succession. And by that time the people perhaps have gotten married or had children that become US citizens. And it leads to all kinds of things. And you're allowing families to reunify while they're here. I think it'll lead to absolute chaos and large numbers of-- it'll actually lead to an increase in illegal immigration, the number of immigrants rather than stop it.
And I think the amnesty thing, we've just been down that trail too long. And I have strongly, again, supported the first amnesty because our laws were ambiguous. They're not ambiguous now. Illegal immigrants are not supposed to be here.
And what we need is the courage-- some profiles in courage-- in this area of immigration, to simply say, this is a jobs issue. Illegal immigrants hurt US citizens. They hurt the people who are the most needy of a protection of government. And yet they don't need to be made vulnerable by a guest worker program that allows these people to come and work and an amnesty program that allows them to stay.
STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: Well, I disagree with you there, again. I think that the National Research Council-- for example, in 1997-- found that, even after accounting for all the costs of immigration, immigration at the national level is a net positive force of at least $10 billion a year to our national economy. And I think that's a good thing. And I don't see why you would argue that we shouldn't have more.
VERNON BRIGGS: Because read the-- you know what that study said. $10 billion, but what was that benefit? Wage suppression. All of the benefits that come from that study were where we have driven down American wages by $1 to $10 billion. That was the "benefit" to the nation. The wage suppression is not of benefit to working people, especially the poor people.
And that NRC study also showed that there are costs. And the costs were $14 to $20 billion. That is the fiscal cost that I'm talking about. So the cost outweighed the benefits. Even when you factored in the taxes that immigrants pay, in fact they don't pay the taxes to offset what it costs to have them. In California, you recall, they said that there was $1,200 tax that every native-born person in California pays for each immigrant in that state.
STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: That's because there's inequality. They pay their money into the federal government. The federal government is not very good about throwing their money back out to the state. So that's why we have that inequality between the immigrants who are living in particular states and the states not receiving the benefit of the taxes that they payed into the federal economy. So I think that's a problem with Congress not being able to allocate the money out that everybody is paying into the--
VERNON BRIGGS: Yeah, but it's not Congress's job to support the school systems and the prison systems and those type of things. Those are local government costs. And you're quite right, there are different government responsibilities here involved. But what they said was, once you put all the taxes that are paid, that the immigrants do not carry their own weight. They're all being subsidized.
And every study that I know has shown that wage suppression is the major "benefit" that comes from immigration. Well, that's a national benefit that the business community loves. And some economists love.
STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: And most consumers love. They prefer to be able to shop at Walmart and get low prices. So from that perspective, they're happy to have low prices.
VERNON BRIGGS: But, also from a worker standpoint, wages are income. That's the conditions of life and living. And when we also know, the effect of the experiences in the past, that many of these people can't support themselves-- these illegal immigrants who've gone legalized. Or even on the low wages that they earn at the minimum wage level, that other people are being forced to subsidize them.
So you actually may get a cheaper price at Walmart. But you're going to have to pay higher taxes in your property taxes to pay for the schools and social costs and criminals being put into prisons and all the rest of the things dealing with the social costs that come from the illegal immigration. It's not a free ride.
STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: It's not a free ride. And that's why I think we should legalize these people. I think, if we get them out of the shadows, we'll know who they are. We can vet them to make sure they're not a security risk to our United States. And by being legal here, then they can actually start to exercise their legal rights.
They can argue for more wages. They can unionize. They can do things to help protect themselves and all workers in the United States. I think by having them out in the shadows of our economy we're hurting ourselves in multiple ways that legalization would cure.
VERNON BRIGGS: Well, but it's not an end. It doesn't deal with illegal immigration. It's just like a quick little Band-Aid to try to make the problem go away temporarily. That's the problem I have with all these things. I mean, the politicians like them because, all of a sudden, the number of illegal immigrants drop because you legalize their status.
That doesn't mean that you haven't had a problem with illegal immigration. The people are still the same-- disproportionately poorly educated, non-English speaking, trapped in a low-wage sector of the US economy. And that has enormous social costs for the citizens that are down there. It's not a panacea by any means, this thing.
I mean, I think the main issue is illegal immigration. And to stop illegal immigration, you've got to go back to employer sanctions and job magnet-- the labor-market magnet-- and cut off that magnet. And the rest these things are just sops to temporarily make the thing look better but don't deal with the real issue.
STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: Well, I agree that we need to have better enforcement on our borders to stop illegal immigration in the future. But these are 9 million people who are here already in the United States that are not going to go away. And I think we've got to deal with them in a positive way so that they become an integral part of our society instead of pretending they're not there and undercutting their wages and hurting everyone.
VERNON BRIGGS: Well, they're going to have to go away-- I mean, to the degree that you can enforce your employer sanctions. That's exactly what the Mex-- that was with the intention of Congress was. That is exactly what it's all about. You're not wanted here in these labor markets. And you don't have a right to be here.
There is a legal way into the country. And if we want to discuss legal immigration and expanding legal immigration to make it more associated with labor markets, that's another topic. But right this moment, we know that illegal immigrants go into the low-wage sector of the labor market. They hurt minorities, women, youth the most. They hamper low-wage workers in general the most. They're the ones that carry the burden of this competition. And public policy shouldn't be sanctioning policies that hurt the most vulnerable people in our society.
STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: OK, well there we have it. We've got our debate on the table. We both agree that we need to have stronger enforcement on our borders. We disagree as to whether we should help the people who are already here, illegally or not. And we'll leave it up to Congress to decide what to do on this controversial issue. Thank you.
I hope you've enjoyed this Cyber Tower "Study Room" about immigration in the United States. As you've seen, immigration is very complex. There are no clear answers about the impact of immigration whether from an economic, political, or social point of view. I believe that immigration overall is a net positive gain to our society. But we need to do it carefully and thoughtfully.
Too far and too long Congress has only tinkered at the edges with immigration reform. Because it is so complex, I think we need to have a far-reaching debate about immigration and try to come to a national consensus. The last time we did this was in 1981 when we had a Commission by Reverend Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame. That select commission promulgated a lot of recommendations that are still useful today.
If we had another such commission, I think that the United States could come to, perhaps, a consensus about immigration that would allow us to move forward and see that immigration really can benefit rather than hurt us if we approach it in the right way. I hope you'll join me in that ongoing debate.
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Immigration is a key controversy in the United States:
Does immigration help or hurt the U.S. economy?
Do immigrants take jobs from U.S. native born workers or create new jobs?
Should we restrict immigration or allow more people to immigrate?
What should we do about the estimated 8-9 million undocumented noncitizens now living in the United States?
This CyberTower room will familiarize you with the key historical, policy and legal issues to allow you to engage intelligently in this debate.
The stakes involved are high and often presented as mutually exclusive entities; jobs for natives vs. non-natives; the value of cultural diversity vs. the pressure for assimilation; the debate over whether immigration helps or hurts the United States.
This video is part 6 of 6 in the Us versus Them series.