March 14, 2006,
A core element of the American creed has always been a belief in the dignity of labor at least until now. Supporters of a guest-worker program for Mexican laborers say that "there are jobs that no Americans will do." This is an argument that is a step away from suggesting that there are jobs that Americans shouldn't do.
President George Bush, a strong supporter of the guest-worker program, has long said that "family values don't stop at the Rio Grande." We are supposed to believe, however, that the work ethic does stop there it is only south of it that people can be found who are willing to work in construction, landscaping and agricultural jobs. So, without importing those people into our labor market, these jobs would go unfilled, disrupting the economy (and creating an epidemic of unkempt lawns in Southern California).
This is sheer nonsense. According to a new survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, illegals make up 24 percent of workers in agriculture, 17 percent in cleaning, 14 percent in construction, and 12 percent in food production. So 86 percent of construction workers, for instance, are either legal immigrants or Americans, despite the fact that this is one of the alleged categories of untouchable jobs.
Oddly, the people who warn that without millions of cheap, unskilled Mexican laborers, this country would face economic disaster are pro-business libertarians. They believe in the power of the market to handle anything except a slightly tighter labor market for unskilled workers. But the free market would inevitably adjust, with higher wages or technological innovation.
Take agriculture. Phillip Martin, an economist at the University of California, Davis, has demolished the argument that a crackdown on illegals would ruin it, or be a hardship to consumers. Most farming livestock, grains, etc. doesn't heavily rely on hired workers. Only about 20 percent of the farm sector does, chiefly those areas involving fresh fruit and vegetables.
The average "consumer unit" in the U.S. spends $7 a week on fresh fruit and vegetables, less than is spent on alcohol, according to Martin. On a $1 head of lettuce, the farm worker gets about 6 or 7 cents, roughly 1/15th of the retail price. Even a big run-up in the cost of labor can't hit the consumer very hard.
Martin recalls that the end of the bracero guest-worker program in the mid-1960s caused a one-year 40 percent wage increase for the United Farm Workers Union. A similar wage increase for legal farm workers today would work out to about a 10-dollar-a-year increase in the average family's bill for fruit and vegetables. Another thing happened with the end of the bracero program: The processed-tomato industry, which was heavily dependent on guest workers and was supposed to be devastated by their absence, learned how to mechanize and became more productive.
So the market will manage with fewer illegal aliens. In agriculture, Martin speculates that will mean technological innovation in some sectors (peaches), and perhaps a shifting to production abroad in others (strawberries). There is indeed a niche for low-skill labor in America. The question is simply whether it should be filled by illegal or temporary Mexicans workers, or instead by legal immigrants and Americans, who can command slightly higher wages. The guest-worker lobby prefers the former option.
If this debate is presented clearly, there is little doubt what most conservatives and the public would prefer. In his second term, President Bush has become a master of the reverse-wedge issue hot-button issues that divide his political base and get it to feast on itself with charges of sexism, xenophobia and racism. The first was Harriet Miers; then there was the Dubai ports deal; and now comes his guest-worker proposal, making for a trifecta of political self-immolation.
There is still time for Bush to make an escape from this latest budding political disaster, but it has to begin with the affirmation that there are no jobs Americans won't do.