Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The House is about to debate — and hopefully pass — an immigration enforcement bill, HR 4437. It’s about time.

Let’s start the debate by dispatching the biggest myth: “Americans won’t do certain jobs, that’s why we have to import foreign labor.” There are no jobs Americans won’t do. No matter how physically difficult, intellectually challenging or personally dangerous an occupation might be, Americans will do the job that needs to be done — provided the compensation is right.

We used to understand that dirty, dangerous jobs deserved good pay, even if the job did not require much education. Meat packers used to make a solid middle-class wage. They were not rich, but the arduous and bone-chilling work of carving up animal carcasses and packaging them for grocery sale was considered a decent job. Middle-class meat packers supported a home and family and were the strength of their communities. Now, with the huge influx of illegal alien laborers, the job is being relegated to low wages and few benefits. Home ownership, along with other upwardly mobile middle-class expectations, is being left behind.



With decent wages and health benefits big, medium and small businesses can find plenty of citizens or legal immigrants to take almost any job. But that isn’t necessarily in the interests of the current captains of American industry. Elite business executives pay themselves enormous salaries and stock options, even when they fail. The ratio between what is paid employees and what is channeled into the pockets of top executives is totally out of sync with past pay differentials in our country. Yet these very same patronizing executives, who pay themselves colossal sums, say they can’t afford to pay their employees a living wage and thus import foreigners to do the work on the cheap. And if foreigners aren’t around sometimes they are brought in either legally, through the H1B visa program, or even illegally. Just recently Tysons Company executives were found guilty of collaborating with coyotes to smuggle illegal aliens across the border. Some employers, of course, claim a shortage of educated or trained Americans to fill available tech related jobs. That’s when H1B visas are called for as if there were no alternative, but that’s not true. A shortage of educated labor doesn’t mean we need to bring in more foreigners, it means we need to educate, train and motivate our kids. Bringing in foreigners depresses the pay level for such tech jobs and that is certainly no way to encourage young people to study science, engineering or mathematics, rather than become lawyers.

Furthermore, without taking the easy path of bringing in foreigners to do tech jobs a number of those jobs could be filled by training disabled people. Yes there would be a cost involved in such training and in redesigning the workplace but the disabled will never get it if we flood our tech market with young, healthy, cheap workers from India, Pakistan or China.

HR 4437, to its credit, at least partially addresses big business’ addiction to foreign labor by preventing them from “gaming” the labor market by unlawfully bringing in and taking advantage of illegal immigration. By demanding all businesses use the Basic Pilot Verification Program and verify every employee they hire is in the country legally, we will end the “wink and nod” system of hiring those with forged documents.

This is certainly a step in the right direction but HR 4437 could have been much stronger by eliminating another huge magnet for illegal immigration: public education, welfare and health benefits.

By providing a free education and free emergency-room health care, we attract enormous numbers of illegal immigrants from all over the world. By not addressing this issue, H.R. 4437 leaves intact a major draw for illegal aliens to do everything in their power to get into the land of plenty, so their families can receive a treasure of benefits.

Clearly there are those in business, on the other hand, who want illegal labor and want the government to provide them benefits in order to lower wages with and let the taxpayers pick up the tab for benefits like health care. The agriculture industry, for example, cries the loudest about the necessity for foreign labor. But there is an alternative pool of workers to a guest-worker program for agriculture. Who are they? They are in America’s prisons. The United States has the largest number “per one thousand population” of healthy young males incarcerated than any other country in the world. Instead of providing prisoners with gyms and TVs, we should use this population in physically demanding farm labor and pay them for it.

A well-structured prisoner work program could secure a third of a prisoner worker’s paycheck to cover some of the costs of incarceration. Another third could provide restitution for victims. And the final third could be placed in a savings account, to be given to the prisoners upon release, a nest egg to start a new life, which is far better than our current system.

This example is a win-win-win situation. Prisons will gain much-needed income, prisoners will have a productive way to spend their days and an untapped labor pool could provide relief for industries that claim they need it.

HR 4437 is a good bill and a step in the right direction. For the first time since I have served in Congress, this body is considering a serious immigration-enforcement bill with real teeth. It should be enacted into law and the voting public should use it to judge their elected officials.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, is chairman of the International Relations Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

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