Immigration Winners, Losers, Inbetweeners

In early August, reported that Southern District of Mississippi U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst announced indictments that a federal grand jury returned against four individuals directly involved in last year’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement action. ICE arrested and detained 680 illegal aliens who worked at seven chicken processing plants that five separate companies owned and operated. But, at the time, no white-collar arrests were made.

A year later, however, charges came down that included illegal alien harboring, assisting aliens in obtaining fraudulent Social Security cards, making false statements to law enforcement officials, filing falsified quarterly wage reports, money laundering, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. In the aggregate, the criminally charged face up to 228 years in jail, and $6.75 million in fines.

Acting ICE Deputy Director Matthew T. Albence promised that “companies who intentionally or knowingly base their business model on an illegal workforce deprive law-abiding citizens and lawful immigrants of employment opportunities…” and will be punished. Hurst reaffirmed that the indictments “mark the beginning and not the end of our investigations and prosecutions.”

Companies that hired illegal aliens to boost their bottom-line profits should be – but probably aren’t – ashamed of themselves. Although the universally made claim among illegal immigrant employers is either that Americans won’t work in poultry processing plants or are less enthusiastic employees than foreign-born labor, the truth is that in the impoverished Jackson, Mississippi, area, any job that offers a competitive salary, safe working conditions and a reasonable benefits package would attract workers.

The most recent U.S. Census Bureau data shows that in Jackson County, the per capita income is $25,300 and 19 percent of its 144,000 population live below the federal poverty line. About 40 percent of Jackson County over age 16 is detached from the labor force. Clearly, then, a sufficient number of potential employees live close enough to the processing facilities so that employers needn’t rely on unlawfully present workers. Moreover, the poultry business is booming. The national per capita consumption is a record 96.5 pounds. Strong sales mean that owners generate enough income to pay their employees a living wage.

The poultry indictments raise ethical questions, a balance sheet of sorts, of who wins and who loses from the effect legal and illegal immigration has on U.S. workers. Immigration, both in the form of illegal border crossers and legally present employment-based visa holders like H-2As and H-2Bs, harms existing U.S. workers as well as the unemployed and under-employed. Immediately after the ICE action, one of the targeted companies hosted a jobs fair that, unsurprisingly given the area’s low-income residents and the sudden unexpected availability of jobs, attracted dozens of prospective American employees. The takeaway: many Americans would do poultry processing jobs.

But immigration politics poses a formidable challenge that American workers have found increasingly difficult to overcome. A Congress purposely blind to the fallout from what has been an uninterrupted 30-year immigration flow hinders workers. Border and interior immigration enforcement has been scant. Preposterous and illegal practices like sanctuary cities, states and counties, of which Jackson is one, encourage illegal immigration.

Summarizing the hypothetical immigration balance sheet, the winners are employers who illegally hire immigrants, pay them lower wages than Americans would accept, and too often exploit their international workers who have little choice but to endure poor treatment or risk being sent home. The losers are U.S. workers who foreign-born workers have displaced, and their families, abandoned by Congress.

As for the immigrants themselves, no one knows the conditions from which they migrated or what lifestyle they maintain in the U.S. At best, their circumstances are mixed; they’re employed, and they have a shot at the American dream, possible citizenship and better education for their children. On the other hand, the immigrants are toiling in demanding conditions, and are thousands of miles from their home, their culture and their native language.

Beyond dispute, however, is the detrimental effect continuous immigration has on U.S. workers and how it depresses earnings. In his Washington Post op-ed titled “Higher Pay for Low-Wage Earners,”  George Washington University economics professor emeritus Robert M. Dunn, Jr. wrote that if Congress wants to boost low-wage Americans’ earnings and end income inequality, “it must severely restrict the inflow of unskilled workers from abroad….”

The Post published Dunn’s opinion piece in 1992. Since then, four presidents, two Republicans and two Democrats, and Republican- and Democratic-controlled congresses, have failed at one of their most fundamental responsibilities – protecting American workers.