I have been engaged in some rather heated debate this week over the issue of undocumented immigration through our southern border. Some simply think that President Trump is cruel. Others think that he is a hero for enforcing the law as did President Obama before him. Either way the politics of the emotional debate cloud a serious issue, extraordinarily impactful in the real world, that flows from uncontrolled immigration.
Our nation is not the same place that it was when agricultural land was available everywhere and the demand for labor was immeasurable. In those days wide-open immigration was a valuable asset and was welcomed. But that time ended probably sometime in the early twentieth century and now we are a mature economy of somewhat stable growth. One in which the demand for unskilled and semi-skilled labor is dramatically reduced. One in which land for agriculture is all taken and small-scale, family-run agriculture is less and less practical.
New Orleans and most other urban areas of our state share a major problem. Some statistics from a May article in The Advocate tell the tale. In New Orleans, during the Landrieu years, black family income declined about 20%. At the same time black male unemployment remained stuck at about 50%, that’s 5-0 percent! So what does all this have to do with the southern border and a changed economy?
In its simplest form the law of supply and demand rules our lives. In the extant case, the primary goal of our political structure must be the creation of good-paying job opportunities for those unfortunate citizens who do not have them today. But when a very large number of low-skilled, low-wage immigrants flowing in from an open southern border appear at our doorstep then two things happen. First, in a region that is not generating many jobs to start with the number of available jobs simply diminishes as a great many are taken by immigrants. Second, that nagging law of supply and demand kicks in and wages fall because of the competition between immigrants and native citizens for those ever-scarcer jobs.
We all know that there is a large and growing population of immigrants that have come to our region since Hurricane Katrina. It is likely that the current unemployment numbers and low income levels of our native citizens has already been seriously impacted by their arrival. It is absolutely assured that as the population of undocumented immigrants continues to grow they will crowd out of the job market many more of our own citizens. The result is that we may expect ever declining family wealth and all the social evils that come from that.
So here is the really unfortunate part of this problem. When Katrina hit, a great many of our native population of workers departed and stayed away for a long time. In their place great numbers of undocumented (I assume) workers flocked in to form the labor force that re-built our region. It is interesting to note supply and demand again, jobs were plentiful and so workers came. A side question is why the natives didn’t return to assume those jobs but that is a subject for someone else. Without a doubt without undocumented workers we would never have recovered in the time that we did.
But now, as so many of our citizens have come back home and great numbers of immigrants remain and continue to come, we see incomes and job opportunities diminishing. This is a tough call, clearly we owe a lot to those who became our workforce for several years after Katrina, but are we willing to accept the low incomes and unemployment that derive from having too much labor in a weak market?
There is also a great irony in the politics of this. In their effort to capture Hispanic votes, the Democrats have assumed the role of attacking the President’s controlled border policies and are advocating instead for an open border policy. The irony is that they are also the Party that claims African Americans as their base. But African Americans are the very citizens who are being economically devastated by undocumented immigration. That Democrat politicians can defend open borders and undocumented immigration and then act as the protectors of citizens whose low incomes and poor job opportunities result directly from that is beyond amazing.
There are many more issues at play in this border drama. But here at home we will have to make some serious decisions. As long as we have a basically stagnant business sector in our region the number of jobs, especially low-skill jobs, will stay stagnant. As undocumented immigration remains unimpeded the number of workers competing for those jobs will increase and wages for all will fall. That is not a recipe for a healthy city or state.
So even though we feel bad for those people who have fled even worse economic circumstances in their home countries we must be realistic enough to recognize that the health of our region is literally in play. We could focus on business growth and by so doing absorb new immigrants but that would take years or decades even if we were truly committed (which we are not). So, to my way of thinking, the only way out for our region and state is to demand that our federal government control the influx of immigrants to a sustainable level and that that there be the creation of a viable Guest Worker program that can be enforced.
The alternative is a swelling population of evermore impoverished people. Ours would become a region that sees the acceleration of business departure and an overall depression of the economy resulting from the escalation of demands for growing taxes by governments that struggle to afford expanding social programs. Such regions exist today and are there for all to see: they are in Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
There is no easy answer, there is no kind answer. Anyone who thinks that without a booming economy we can absorb thousands of workers and not have a serious negative impact on our own citizens is living in La-La Land. Economics is known as the “dismal science” for a reason. But our future is clear – short of a miracle turnabout in our local economy, we simply must control the number of immigrants that come to our region or face accelerating economic decline, especially among those who do not possess 21st-century skills.