Economist Philip Martin of the University of California likes to tell a story about the state’s tomato industry. In the early 1960s, growers relied on seasonal Mexican laborers, brought in under the government’s “bracero” program. The Mexicans picked the tomatoes that were then processed into ketchup and other products. In 1964 Congress killed the program despite growers’ warnings that its abolition would doom their industry. What happened? Well, plant scientists developed oblong tomatoes that could be harvested by machine. Since then, California’s tomato output has risen fivefold.
It’s a story worth remembering, because we’re being warned again that we need huge numbers of “guest workers”—meaning unskilled laborers from Mexico and Central America—to relieve U.S. “labor shortages.” Indeed, the shortages will supposedly worsen as baby boomers retire. President Bush wants an open-ended program. Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) advocate initially admitting 400,000 guest workers annually. The Senate is considering these and other plans.
Gosh, they’re all bad ideas.
Guest workers would mainly legalize today’s vast inflows of illegal immigrants, with the same consequence: We’d be importing poverty. This isn’t because these immigrants aren’t hardworking; many are. Nor is it because they don’t assimilate; many do. But they generally don’t go home, assimilation is slow and the ranks of the poor are constantly replenished. Since 1980 the number of Hispanics with incomes below the government’s poverty line (about $19,300 in 2004 for a family of four) has risen 162 percent. Over the same period, the number of non-Hispanic whites in poverty rose 3 percent and the number of blacks, 9.5 percent. What we have now—and would with guest workers—is a conscious policy of creating poverty in the United States while relieving it in Mexico. By and large, this is a bad bargain for the United States. It stresses local schools, hospitals and housing; it feeds social tensions (witness the Minutemen). To be sure, some Americans get cheap housecleaning or landscaping services. But if more mowed their own lawns or did their own laundry, it wouldn’t be a tragedy.
The most lunatic notion is that admitting more poor Latino workers would ease the labor market strains of retiring baby boomers. The two aren’t close substitutes for each other. Among immigrant Mexican and Central American workers in 2004, only 7 percent had a college degree and nearly 60 percent lacked a high school diploma, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Among native-born U.S. workers, 32 percent had a college degree and only 6 percent did not have a high school diploma. Far from softening the social problems of an aging society, more poor immigrants might aggravate them by pitting older retirees against younger Hispanics for limited government benefits.