Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Who Will Do The Dirty Work?

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 1, 2012 --  

The era of cheap Mexican labor is over. America must loosen immigration quotas to find an alternative.

With a harsh Arizona immigration law now in the hands of the Supreme Court, and the Republican primary fight over, a year of noisy debate over illegal immigration may now be over. Americans favoring harsher enforcement seem to have won. A recent Fox News poll found that nearly two thirds of Americans support the Arizona law that requires police to check the documents of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.1

Yet Americans who want to stem the tide of illegal immigration should be careful what they wish for. A recent Pew study shows that migration from Mexico to the United States, which has seen 12 million arrivals in the past 40 years, has not just ground to a halt, but may have actually reversed.2

If sustained, this sharp change in migration patterns could create a crisis for the US economy, which has long relied on cheap Mexican labor to pick fruit and vegetables, slaughter livestock, construct buildings, and perform domestic work. Without an alternative source of this labor for these dirty and difficult jobs, Americans will be forced to pay much higher prices for products and services dependent on unskilled labor.

A recognition of the importance of cheap immigrant labor to commerce was once a pillar of the Republican Party. Conservative hero Ronald Regan granted amnesty to 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants in 1986.3

Times have changed. Populist anger at the ubiquity of Spanish-speaking immigrants has made pro-immigration Republicans disappear from public view. And given that Democrats are beholden to union interests -- interests that are fundamentally oppose any newcomer competition to their high labor rates -- immigrants aren't likely to find many friends in Washington any time soon.

Fortunately, the immediate future is not dire for cheap labor. Millions of unregistered immigrants are already in the country, and the economy, while growing slowly, is weak enough to have sufficient unskilled laborers for the next few years. And when the economy does pick up, it is likely that some Mexicans will begin returning, just as Mexican immigration has increased at the end of earlier recessions. While the Arizona law will probably withstand its Supreme Court challenge, history has shown that crackdowns have never successfully stemmed the flow of immigration.

But as the Pew report notes, it is unlikely that we ever again will see such high levels of Mexican migration. Lost in the noise about drug violence in Mexico in recent years is the bigger story that the Mexican economy has been growing at a strong clip for the past decade. Birthrates are much lower than in decades past, and 65 percent of Mexicans now consider themselves middle class.4 Ever richer Mexicans aren't going to do Americans' dirty work much longer. So who will?

In the near-term, the Central Americans will certainly pick up the slack. For years, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans have provided the bulk of labor to Washington and other East Coast cities, and their common language and similar culture to Mexicans have made them largely indistinguishable to most Americans. Lagging economic growth in several of these countries will certainly provide cheap immigrant labor for several years at least.

But these countries are much smaller than Mexico (there are 42 million Central Americans vs. 115 million Mexicans) 5, and many Central Americans are already in the United States. Most recent figures show that America's Salvadoran-born population is 20 percent of the six million people in El Salvador6. If the Central Americans are to replace Mexicans, soon there will be hardly anybody left in Central America.

While there is no shortage of other poor countries that can fill America's demand for cheap labor for decades to come, the problem is that they aren't nearby. It's easy enough for millions of Mexicans and Central Americans to sneak across the Rio Grande or the Arizona desert. But millions of laborers from places like Haiti, Bolivia, the Philippines or Nigeria can't surreptitiously enter America by swimming across an ocean. Human smugglers can do the job, but only at such high prices that most unskilled laborers can't afford it. The only way for them to come in large numbers is legally -- but American immigration quotas won't allow it.

The simple truth is that America's next-door supply of cheap labor is about to dry up. If nothing is done, Americans risk a declining standard of living by paying much higher prices at the grocery store, for their homes, and for their gardeners and housecleaners. Clearly, the two thirds of Americans who support the Arizona law aren't about to support lessening America's strict legal immigration quotas for other people to come. Once the consequences begin to hit their pocketbooks, hopefully these people will change their minds.

Related Web Columns:

Stupid and Impossible
21st Century Immigration Law
, April 27, 2010

Submitting to the Rising Tide, June 12, 2007

Meet the Parasites, April 4, 2006

Out of the Sand!
America's Failed Immigration Policy
, July 22, 2003

Crossing Borders With Uncrossed T's, April 2, 2002

Constitutional Rights: DENIED, December 11, 2001

Profoundly Evil
The Deadly Face of Modern Migration
, June 27, 2000

Lessons of the Conquistadors, April 4, 2000

Constitutional Apartheid
America's New Political Underclass
, March 9, 1999


1. Fox News, Fox News poll: Majority of voters favor Arizona immigration law, April 20, 2012

2. Pew Research Center, Net Migration from Mexico Falls to Zero -- and Perhaps Less, April 24, 2012

3. Cato Institute, A Flood of Bad Immigration Numbers, May 30, 2006

4. CIA World Factbook, (Guatemala : 14 million, Belize: 0.3 million, El Salvador: 6 million, Honduras: 8 million, Nicaragua: 6 million, Costa Rica: 4.6 million, Panama: 3.5 million, Mexico: 114 million, Calculated Total Central America: 42.4 million), May 2012

5. U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Place of Birth For the Foreign-Born Population in the United States, April 2012 (1.2 million U.S. residents born in El Salvador)

6. U.S. Department of State, Background Note: El Salvador, February 6, 2012 (Population 6.1 million)