Harper's Magazine Gives the Free Market a Pass on Immigration

By Jerry Kammer, January 21, 2013

Unlike many of my CIS colleagues, I consider myself a liberal. One reason is that I believe government regulation is necessary to curb abuses of the free market. Another is that I think government should be involved in checking the free market's tendency to devalue the work of those at the bottom and to concentrate too much wealth at the top.

I believe that we need to restrict immigration, especially of the unskilled and poorly educated, in order to protect the social safety net and limit the ability of employers to displace American workers or drive down their wages.

That is why I am bumfuzzled that the cover story in the February issue of liberal Harper's Magazine skips lightly past the moral dimensions of the meat-packing industry's role in the transformation of small towns like Fremont, Neb.

The story is titled "This Land is Not Your Land: Deciding Who Belongs in America". The author is Ted Genoways, whose liberal credentials include work as an editor for the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council and as a contributing writer at Mother Jones magazine.

The cover art depicts barbed wire rolled out to oppress Latino immigrants who have come to Fremont for meat-processing jobs at the local Hormel plant. Inside, the magazine spends half a page on a menacing close-up of three strands of blood-red barbed wire.

The story presents a sympathetic view of the immigrants as upwardly mobile strivers. It is distinctly unsympathetic about the townspeople who pushed through an ordinance to outlaw the harboring, hiring, and transporting of illegal immigrants.

What surprised me, given the story's moralistic framing, was the detached and neutral way it presented the ruthless transformation of meat-packing jobs and the towns that grew with them.

"For decades, wages held firm at about 20 percent above the national average for a manufacturing job", Genoways reports. But in the 1980s Hormel got tough. It drove down wages at its flagship plant in Minnesota and then "threatened to eliminate more than 40 percent of the Fremont plant's workforce unless the local [union] agreed to wage cuts on their own.''

Genoways notes that as wages plummeted, Hormel's profits and stock price soared. His final comment, before shifting back to the story of an immigrant whose life has been disrupted by the ordinance, points quickly at the next stage of the disruption:

But soon Hormel started looking for an even cheaper workforce, one that would be afraid to complain no matter how fast or dangerous the line became.

Genoways's brevity in laying out this degradation of once-dignified jobs is stunning given the several thousand words he expends on the current legal battling.

He passes no judgment on Hormel. He reports no effort to measure the disruption in the lives of the former workforce.

He doesn't note the key development described in the 1995 book Any Way You Cut It, whose Introduction observed that "Food-processing plants' reliance on governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations to meet a portion of their workers' needs constitutes an added burden on the public, an informal kind of subsidy."

Nor does Genoways show any effort to break through the corporate wall noted later in the same book: "In the face of moral accusations regarding treatment of workers and care and handling of livestock, the industry is defensive and obstinate."

Last week, when I told an immigration-scholar friend of my puzzlement at the Harper's piece, his comment put the issue in a larger frame.

"When it comes to immigration and jobs", he said, "a lot of liberals have given the free market a pass."

So I think my liberal friends should take note of this observation in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books: "At some high level of unworldly abstraction it may be possible to argue that restricting immigration into rich, free countries is illiberal. In real life, limiting immigration is the precondition for maintaining a liberal society."