Today is Labor Day, which for the vast majority of Americans means little more than a three-day weekend and the end of summer. It seemed to me an appropriate occasion, though, to write about immigration.
You see, most of immigration is explained by labor. While there are individuals who migrate because they are seeking family reunification, fleeing persecution, or simply looking for an adventure, the majority of those who migrate do so because they are looking for work, because the economic opportunities somewhere else are more appealing than what their country of origin has to offer. For example, the average hourly wage for an adult male in Mexico is about $1.80 per hour—with many earning much less than that mean and with poverty concentrated in particular regions of the country. In the U.S., by contrast, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, and most of the folks reading this blog, if employed, probably earn significantly more than that. Naturally, when wages for similar work are so much higher north of the border, there’s a strong incentive to migrate.
Since 1965, when they were last comprehensively reformed, our immigration laws in the U.S. have recognized that employment (along with family reunification) is a primary driver of immigration, and eligibility to migrate to the U.S. has thus been based primarily on family relationships and employability. Unfortunately, quotas that may have made sense when made law in 1965 have been very rarely updated over the last half century and are now woefully out of touch with the U.S. economy’s need for workers. Most startlingly, our immigration system currently provides just 5,000 immigrant visas per year to employer-sponsored immigrants who are not classified as “highly skilled.” That’s far fewer workers than our economy requires in order to sustain economic growth. To put that number in perspective, a century ago, 5,000 immigrants—most of whom would be considered “low-skilled” by today’s classification system—entered through Ellis Island on a typical day. Our legal system makes it impossible for many of those who would like to come to do so legally, but since there are many more jobs available than there are visas, many find their way across illegally.
At a time when unemployment is above 10% in many parts of the United States, though, many would argue that we don’t need foreign workers coming in to take jobs. The reality, though, is that “low-skilled” immigrant workers are, for the most part, not taking jobs for which Americans apply; in fact, they do jobs that complement the jobs that Americans want and are willing to do—and they also become consumers in the United States, creating more jobs—which is why almost all economists agree that the vast majority of Americans benefit economically from the presence of immigrants. In fact, many industries say that they could not survive without the presence of immigrant labor—and would have to lay off many U.S. citizen workers if they folded. Take the agricultural industry, for example: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack estimates that 50 to 60% of our food is touched by immigrant hands. But American citizens—even the unemployed—simply do not want to do back-breaking agricultural work. Dairy farmer Deborah Reinhart from my home state of Wisconsin says that, despite significant efforts to advertise jobs, she has not had a physically-fit native-born job applicant on her family’s dairy since 1998. In Georgia, where a tough new immigration law has scared many immigrants out of the state, farmers complain that they simply cannot find adequate workers: “Today I needed 20 pickers and got 10,” said one fruit farmer recently. That’s a problem for the American citizens who own the farm and for the American consumers who are likely to pay more for Wisconsin dairy products, Georgia peaches and pecans, and many other agricultural products—but it also means a loss of complementary American jobs, because economists estimate that each farm job supports three to four other jobs in the local economy.
From a Christian perspective, we should celebrate hard work. At Creation—even before their fall into sin, which should rebut any suggestion that work is a necessary evil—God commanded Adam and Eve to work the garden (Genesis 1:28-30). The book of Proverbs is replete with commendations of hard work as the secret to success. In the New Testament, Paul instructs the Church that “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Jesus himself worked as a carpenter (Mark 6:3) and the Apostle Paul, who made tents for a living (Acts 18:1-3), encourages us to “work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Work is repeatedly extolled throughout the Scriptures.
It’s thus odd to me that some Christians are so angry at immigrants who violate an immigration law strictly so that they can follow God’s command to work—and are also so unwilling to change the laws to allow more individuals to enter and work lawfully. It’s also befuddling to me that most elected officials within the Republican Party—which I think of as the party that traditionally upholds the value of hard work, with a suspicion of governmental handout programs that might disincentive work—have recently been so hard on undocumented immigrants, who are not eligible for means-tested public benefits but, in almost all cases, are working and supporting their families (96% of undocumented men are working, a much higher rate than U.S. citizens or immigrants with legal status).
Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention notes the irony of the fact that, whereas many “home-grown criminals break the law in order to avoid work,” undocumented immigrants’ offense is in working itself. They have broken the law, to be sure, and I agree with Dr. Land that there should be appropriate penalties for violating the law—but Labor Day is as good a time as any to ask whether these laws make sense in the first place and to encourage our legislators to get about the business of changing them, enacting a Comprehensive Immigration Reform that would reward hard work, provide adequate legal channels for immigrant laborers to meet the needs of a U.S. economy sorely in need of a jumpstart, and allow undocumented workers already here to pay a fine and get right with the law. (You can click this link to get started by sending an email).
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist atWorld Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
If you’re interested in writing a guest blog, contact [email protected].