Immigration Solution must consider economic reality

Monday, March 21, 2011 9:53 PM

In one of the strangest twists yet in this nation’s struggle with illegal immigration, a Texas legislator recently introduced a bill that would have made it illegal in that state to hire undocumented workers, except as maids and gardeners.

There are so many things wrong with that bill that it’s hard to know where to begin. The most functional flaw is that there is no such exemption in federal immigration law — and immigration is primarily a federal issue. For that reason alone, the bill is going nowhere.

But there are myriad other problems. It gives a pass to employers who can afford household help. It suggests that citizens and papered immigrants who do such work do not deserve the same job protections as people in other occupations; after all, they’re “just” maids and gardeners, so it’s OK if their employers want to replace them with someone willing to work for less than minimum wage. It sounds like a veiled insult to immigrants who don’t know their “place.”

Still, it’s an oblique way of acknowledging that immigrants do accept jobs for which citizens frequently decline to compete. There are, after all, surely a fair number of Texans currently collecting unemployment benefits or “welfare” payments rather than cleaning the bathrooms and trimming the shrubs of the wealthy. They aren’t lining up to apply for slots on the agricultural crews that move from place to place, planting, weeding, harvesting and packing.

Some of those unemployed citizens may be caring for others’ children, and a percentage of those are not following the laws governing child-care workers and environments, but full-time live-in nannies are still likely to be immigrants, in part because most of the applicants are immigrants.

The weird Texas bill, then, is evidence that a robust guest-worker program is needed, that some Texans depend on immigrants, and that they do have a valuable role in the economy. “Maids and gardeners” doesn’t begin to cover it. If all undocumented workers were deported, the U.S. economy would eventually find its equilibrium, but that painful process would take a long, long time. Untangling the immigration mess is far more complicated than just kicking illegal immigrants out and slamming the door.

Legislators in the southern border states are frustrated, and rightly so. Illegal immigration costs them a great deal of money, and right now states are having to find ever-deeper budget cuts. Relieving them of that burden wouldn’t solve their financial woes, but it would contribute to the solution.

In considering strict immigration laws, Texas lawmakers are making the same point their Arizona counterparts have made: The federal government needs to enforce its own laws. That is indisputable, and Texas shouldn’t attempt to countermand any of those laws.

By all means, make the point. Collaborate on a consistent policy that makes sense, and then help to enforce it.

But heaven forbid someone would have to stand on principle without the support of a maid and a gardener.