Illegal migrants are willing to work at lower wages than Americans. The campaign against them is mere posturing.

A few days back, my wife and I were waiting at a hospital lounge in the US. A white lady came and occupied a seat close to us. She began: “I don’t like Indians. How many years does a person need to stay in US before he gets citizenship? Ten years? In other countries if such people are killed by someone, he is honoured. But, unfortunately, here he has to go to jail.”

We were really astonished at this remark. I have lived in the US for many years — first as a PhD student in the early 70s and since then as professors in different US universities at different times. I have never faced this kind of open racist remarks and veiled threats.

Initially, we disregarded the lady and did not answer. But she continued her abusive rant. Then, I was forced to tell her: “Look, lady. I am a PhD and a university professor, not an illegal immigrant. Just stop your racist comments, otherwise I will have to call the police.” Only after my counter-threat did the lady stop.

This shows that there exists a deep resentment against illegal immigrants in the US among ordinary citizens. US Homeland Security estimates that in 2011 there were 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the US. Out of this, 6.8 million were from Mexico.

Another 1.5 million originated from other Latin American countries. Four Asian countries — China, the Philippines, India and South Korea — accounted for more than 1 million. Why, then, does the government not do anything effective to stop this? The reasons are both political and economic.

MIGRATION DRIVERS

Mexican and other illegal workers work at lower effective wages than their American counterparts, as they are not legally entitled to receive the benefits under labour laws. Further, since they cannot get unemployment or medical benefits (Medicaid), they are under greater compulsion to work at any wage for their survival. They mainly work as labour in agriculture, construction, meat packing, restaurants and small factories, where even unskilled American workers are no longer keen to work.

The womenfolk work as nannies, house maids and cleaning ladies, where too the American counterparts are not that interested. Thus, the pressure from American trade unions to restrict illegal immigration of such people is weak.

Consumers are happy as they keep the prices low. Several high-ranking American officials and even Congressmen have been found to have employed such workers in their homes. Under the law, the employers face stiff penalty for employing undocumented employees.

But the law is enforced very sparingly to be an effective deterrent. Most employers do not make use of the electronic system (E-Verify) in place to check the immigration status of prospective employees.

In 2011, raids on workplaces arrested less than 1,500 workers out of the estimated 8 million and less than 400 employers were fined out of several millions. And this was a substantial improvement in enforcement claimed by the Obama Administration, as no employers were punished in 2006 under the earlier Republican Bush era. In several States, the police are not allowed to check immigration papers of drivers violating traffic laws, or even driving without valid driving license.

POLITICAL CONSENSUS

Apart from the nexus between the beneficiaries of cheap labour and the law enforcement officials, the Latino voters — because of their sheer number and concentration in a few important states — have to be kept in good humour.

They were an assured vote-bank for Democrats so far, but now even the Republicans are realising their crucial importance if they have to win elections.

As a result, some initiatives are being currently taken by a group of influential American Senators belonging to both Democratic and Republican parties to open a pathway for the 11 million illegal immigrants to be legalised citizens, following a number of clearly laid-down steps and conditions (like no serious criminal record, minimum proficiency in English), along with a more effective border security surveillance and internal enforcement of immigration rules (including rigorous checks on employment and a forgery-proof, theft-proof identification system).

To bring others on board to support the immigration Bill, some incentives in the form of more visas for the high-skill technical workers from abroad and a strictly enforced temporary worker programme for agricultural workers may very well be included in the Bill.

The pathway to citizenship will be longer and more arduous for illegal immigrants (though shorter for their children who are in the US due to no fault on their part) than for others who have come legally.

The best-case scenario is that these incentives will bring out the majority of illegal immigrants out in the open without the fear of deportation while waiting for their green cards. They would send their children to school, acquire English language and other skills, enter the mainstream by being productive, law-abiding and tax-paying citizens. The temporary guest worker programme will allow the US to get low-skill workers as and when required by the economy at low cost, and the excess workers will leave when demand falls. The strict border and internal enforcement will prevent the recurrence of another immigration crisis in future.

AMNESTY SCHEME

But most analysts are sceptical. According to them, the more likely scenario will be something like this. A majority of current illegal workers will take advantage of this ‘amnesty’ (or whatever fancy name is given) scheme.

But the economic incentive to employ people at less than legal wages and benefits and the expectation that illegal immigrants of today will again be allowed to be legal citizens in a future ‘amnesty’ programme, will continue to attract more illegal immigrants, far above any guest worker quota.

Enforcement will again become lax due to the nexus between economic interests and political benefits.

Illegal immigrants will find sanctuary in the homes of friends and relatives already in the US and in the workplaces of ‘sympathetic’ employers till the time when the compulsions of vote-bank politics will once again legalise them.

Thus, the wheel of illegal immigration will continue to turn.

(This article was published on February 20, 2013)
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