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On Efficiency and Immigrant Labor

By Andy Urban, PhD candidate in History at the University of Minnesota. IHRC Affiliated Faculty

A recent article in the Economist [link] attempts to complicate the current debate surrounding immigration by reiterating the point that undocumented immigrants typically do not compete with native-born Americans for the same jobs. The article focuses on Jim Pederson, a Democratic candidate for senator from Arizona. Pederson has been touting a guest worker program as a “sensible� alternative to the impossible task of securing and closing-off the border with Mexico. In part, the Economist article draws from a scholarly report recently published in Foreign Affairs by Tamar Jacoby [link], a member of the conservative Manhattan Institute think-tank. Jacoby critiques the arguments of her conservative counterparts seeking to restrict immigration by asserting that, “The market mechanisms that connect U.S. demand with foreign supply, particularly from Latin America, are surprisingly efficient.� Essentially Jacoby promotes a free market approach to immigration, whereby a cheap labor supply from abroad will provide construction and service sectors with a labor supply that they cannot attract from the native-born American population.

While these economic arguments surrounding immigration are appealing in part because they provide the empirical evidence for countering claims that “immigrants steal American jobs,� they can also make the historian of migration a bit queasy. Historically, the free market has consistently been invoked as the natural rationale for bringing in foreign labor. While immigrants from across the world benefited from the opportunity to work in American factories and in other jobs, business leaders’ notion of the “free market� also meant that at times immigrant workers were used to weaken unions or lower the wage standard. Today, when a free market scholar such as Jacob invokes efficiency one has to wonder to what extent she is using shorthand for “finding the cheapest labor possible.� Similarly, guest worker programs have the potential to function as a means of regulating immigration in a manner that benefits both undocumented immigrants and their employers – but only if these guest worker programs allow workers the right to negotiate the conditions of their employment, to redress poor treatment, and to join unions and other organizations (by way of snide comment, it would be nice if American citizens had these rights as well).

Switching gears…an interesting article from the Anchorage Daily News [link] looks at the relationship between Mormon missionaries and Anchorage, Alaska’s growing Hmong population. As the article notes, “For the young and converted, taking on Mormon beliefs is often bound up with a desire to fit into American society, and to succeed.� This echoes the argument of the anthropologist, Aihwa Ong, who documented in her book Buddha is Hiding, the manner in which Christian agencies intervened in the lives of Asian refugees seeking to resettle in the United States. Ong points out that refugees first encounter Christian missionaries and social workers when they are still in refugee camps, and this connection continues to the United States, informing the manner in which refugees are socially assimilated to American life. To some refugees, Christianity offers a strategy for social incorporation, albeit a strategy that forces them to make cultural choices that can be at odds with their traditions.

Finally, an article in the Houston Chronicle [link] calls attention to a creative means of overcoming language difficulties, in a manner that benefits both tourists and immigrants. San Francisco is piloting a program where non-English speakers will have instant access to a translator via a toll free number. These translators will be available to help non-English speakers communicate with municipal agencies, as well as to connect with businesses that agreed to help fund the program. Maybe the market is not so bad after all…

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Andy Urban is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Minnesota, and a member of the IHRC Advisory Council. His research focuses on Irish and Chinese domestic servants in the late-nineteenth century United States.
Contact Information: urba0090@umn.edu

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