Romney, The Consumer

By Steven A. Camarota on December 6, 2006

The Boston Globe, December 6, 2006

The recent news story about apparently illegal immigrants employed by the landscaping company that tends Mitt Romney's yard seemed to suggest that he was at least partly to blame for this. But, the consumer, in this case the governor, is in no way responsible for business practices that go on behind the scenes. In fact, if the governor had asked the workers in question if they were illegal, he could have actually been sued under federal law for discrimination.

Think about it in a practical way. If consumers really are responsible in some way for businesses that hire illegals, why single out the landscaping company? What about the fast-food restaurants or video stores frequented by Massachusetts politicians and their employment of illegals? Given how many illegals work in poultry processing, there's also a good chance that the turkey most of us ate for Thanksgiving was processed by an illegal.

It is almost certain that every elected official, in fact every citizen in Massachusetts, has purchased a good or service provided by an illegal immigrant at some point. But this tells us nothing about the citizens of Massachusetts, all it says is that there are a lot of illegals in the state and in the country. To imagine a circumstance in which the consumer is at least morally culpable, one would have to have evidence that the buyer was aware of the violations. But there is no evidence the governor knew anything about the illegal workers.

If consumers are to blame for what goes on behind the scenes at the businesses they use, why focus only on illegal workers? Does the local gas station or hardware store follow the law with regard to age discrimination, minimum wage, maternity leave, or safety? While most businesses do follow these laws, there is no question that every person in Massachusetts, in fact every person in the country, has patronized a business that does not.

But this fact does not make consumers guilty of anything. Nor is it relevant to the public position of a political leader. Would anyone seriously suggest that an elected official who supports anti discrimination laws but regularly buys hamburgers from a restaurant he didn't know discriminates is a hypocrite? It would also be ridiculous to think that the leader in question should be prevented from taking a strong stand against discrimination in the future.

There are, of course, people to blame for such situations. In the case of illegal immigration, it's the illegals themselves and the businesses that don't follow the law and hire them. The lawn-care company in this case apparently did not make even a half-hearted attempt to follow the law.

The federal government is also to blame. Since Washington has failed to take even the most basic steps necessary to deter illegal immigration, even the most law-abiding consumer will unavoidably purchase services from businesses that employ illegal immigrants.

This incident is a reminder of something we already knew -- there's a huge number of illegals in the United States, including Massachusetts. Here are the numbers: There are an estimated 11 to 12 million illegals in the country, and this number is thought to grow by 400,000 to 500,000 a year. It is believed that 6 to 7 million of those illegal immigrants hold jobs.

It is almost certain that every elected official and citizen has used goods and services provided by illegals. Just as it's also true that all those involved in the debate over discrimination laws or fair labor practices have used goods and services provided by companies that don't follow the law in these areas.

But these situations tell us only that violations of the law are common. The central question is what to do about it.

Steven Camarota is Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies.