Ignoring problems of illegal immigration leads to exploitation

By Stephen Steinlight on August 28, 2008

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

WASHINGTON (JTA) -- The immigration raid on the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, the largest kosher plant in the country, caught most American Jews completely off-guard.

Since the raid in May, which resulted in the arrest of nearly 400 illegal workers, additional serious allegations have emerged against the plant owned by the Brooklyn-based Rubashkin family, including inhumane working conditions, egregious violations of child-labor laws, sexual harassment of female workers and multiple workplace safety infractions.

Lost in the controversy over Agriprocessors is a discussion in the Jewish community of sensible immigration policies.

Avoiding that discourse is tantamount to complicity in what transpired there, and ignoring the problem of illegal immigration virtually guarantees that Agriprocessors’ despicable practices will be repeated elsewhere.

Most Jews have responded admirably to the Agriprocessors news by condemning worker exploitation and advocating ethical kashrut practices. But conspicuous by its absence is outrage over violations of U.S. law and sovereignty by illegal aliens -- the precipitating factor in the ensuing events.

Rendered myopic by political correctness and uninformed sentimentality about immigration, many in the Jewish community have failed to recognize that the AgriProcessors nightmare is an inevitable consequence of massive immigration by the unskilled and uneducated poor -- legal and illegal – into a knowledge-based, post-industrial society.

When many of our parents and grandparents came to these shores during the great waves of European immigration, the American industrial colossus needed semi-skilled and unskilled workers to fill millions of manufacturing jobs with opportunities for upward social mobility. Millions of small farmers were needed to feed this country’s soaring population, and there was an empty continent to fill.

But all that is history.

We don’t have a plethora of manufacturing jobs anymore, we don’t suffer from under-population and we no longer need unskilled immigrants. We have 73 million adult Americans with only a high school education, and that’s more than enough unskilled labor. With cheap immigrant labor flooding the market, millions of Americans are unemployed, and many have despaired about finding work.

Massive immigration has disastrous consequences for America’s most vulnerable: the unemployed, partially employed, working poor, recent legal immigrants, African Americans and elderly working populations. Legalization will sanction and perpetuate this assault on struggling Americans by flooding the workforce with more cheap labor.

A 1997 study by the American Academy of Sciences found that the cheap labor of illegal aliens and poor immigrants caused a 44 percent decrease in wages among the poorest Americans from 1980 to 1994.

The immigration policy embraced by the Jewish community establishment is disastrous for America. It condones illegal immigration, and that doesn’t improve working conditions for immigrants but has brutal consequences for struggling Americans.

By supporting legalization of illegal immigrants, the Jewish establishment endorses the Bush administration’s immigration policy, which seeks to create a huge, permanent legal underclass of impoverished immigrants that will drive down wages and worsen working conditions for all Americans.

Progressive Jews should oppose returning American capitalism to the Dark Ages.

Jewish establishment agencies once distinguished between supporting generous legal immigration as opposed to illegal immigration. But when the leading lobby for increasing immigration, the National Immigration Forum, erased that line, Jewish member organizations abjectly surrendered.

The Jewish establishment’s hypocritical approach undermines the rule of law. Advocates of legalization argue that illegal immigrants are easily exploited and that unscrupulous employers prefer them for that reason.

Legalization is not the cure, however. The mantra about “bringing them out of the shadows” will not solve the problem because once they are legalized, they have to be paid the prevailing wage, making them far less desirable hires.

Illegal aliens are poor not because of their legal status but because of their lack of education and consequent inability to earn better wages. For the past quarter century, real wages for American workers without a high school education have declined 22 percent. The decline among those with no higher education was 11 percent.

The reason: the tsunami of illegal and impoverished immigrants. A study in the 1990s by Social Science Quarterly found that for each 1 percent increase in the proportion of immigrant workers without a high school education in any job category, wages for Americans performing that work fell 7 percent.

Legalization represents another problem of deep concern to the great majority of Americans encouraging further illegal immigration. President Reagan’s 1986 amnesty increased illegal immigration five-fold.

A huge majority of Americans support attrition of the illegal population through vigorous law enforcement, with more than three-quarters choosing attrition over amnesty in surveys. And attrition works: A new study by the Center for Immigration Studies shows the illegal population fell by 11 percent from August 2007 to May 2008 because of stricter immigration enforcement.

The anguish of well-intentioned people is understandable, but open borders immigration harms poor Americans without denting global poverty.

We can’t mend the whole world here, but massive illegal immigration can devastate America. It endangers national security, the social safety net, our most vulnerable citizens and the dignity of American labor. It challenges national cohesion and sovereignty, and it’s producing a population explosion with incalculably ruinous consequences to our environment and quality of life.

Empathy with Postville’s victims cannot justify these threats to the country we love.

(Stephen Steinlight is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington and the author of "The Fractious Nation?: Unity and Division in Contemporary American Life." He is also the former director of national affairs at the American Jewish Committee.)