Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Undocumented workers

May 1 has come to be one of the days when the advocates of undocumented workers demonstrate their support for immigrants. It is also a day for their opponents -- mostly persons who feel threatened by the job competition of the immigrants -- to emphasize that the immigrants are here illegally.

Alan Greenspan, for many years the head of the Federal Reserve and now, in his retirement, the grand old man of the business elite of this country, used the occasion to declare that "illegal immigration has made a significant attribution to US economic growth by providing a flexible workforce."

Translate that into English: businesses can pay undocumented workers very low wages. That saves them money. It also allows them to pay less to American workers because there is always a threat of being replaced by the undocumented low-wage workers. Undocumented workers have no protection from laws or from unions. You can hire and fire them at will.

Greenspan represents the point of view of employers. Many of them like undocumented workers. They also like that the undocumented and their supporters fight with American workers worried about their jobs. The presence of undocumented immigrants provides them with one more way of keeping all wages low and thus making more money.

Both American and undocumented immigrant workers make it easier for their employers to depress their wages when they fight with each other. They would be better off trying to support each other. In work places where there are unions, workers should insist that the undocumented be paid the same wages as they themselves. They should talk to their elected representatives about a reasonable immigration policy that would, for instance, allow long-term undocumented workers to get green cards and, eventually, become citizens and that would allow every workers to come here from abroad for a limited number of years.

The real fight is between employers and their employees. Since real 1970 wages for most Americans have hardly gone up. When workers wanted higher wages, business moved the jobs off-shore. Now they can also use the presence of undocumented workers to keep wages low. As a consequence many people today have less buying power than their parents had.

We can no more stop illegal immigration than we can stop off-shoring jobs. It is important to respond to these facts in ways that do not allow employers to use the undocumented to depress all wages.