Immigration From the Inside Out

February 6, 2015

Editors: An Indiana businesswoman, a member of this foundation, addresses cultural and political viewpoints on immigration from the perspective of an employer for a quarter century of both native-born and foreign-born workers. She writes under a pen name.


by Jo March

One often hears that we are “a nation of immigrants built upon the rule of law.” This is reasonably followed by a call for border security and enforcement of existing immigration laws. Homage may also be paid to an immigrant ancestor, although most came to these shores before immigration law became the issue it is today.

Such generalization, though, does not consider the myriad real-life success stories of immigrants, current and past. Nor does it soften uncomfortable comparisons that can be drawn between woeful mishandling of ethnicity early in our history and current attitudes toward Hispanic immigrants.

The United States Naturalization Law of March 26, 1790, did not restrict immigration per se, only addressing qualifications for citizenship. It limited naturalization to immigrants who were free, white and of good character. It thus excluded American Indians, indentured servants, slaves, free blacks and Asians.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law on May 6, 1882, by President Chester A. Arthur, effectively halted Chinese immigration for 10 years and prohibited Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens. This stood until 1943, reflecting the exigencies of the time, when China was our ally against Japan. Still, only 105 Chinese immigrants per year were permitted entry until the Immigration Act of 1965 abolished national origin quotas.

With the Bracero Program, initiated in 1942 in response to wartime labor shortages, several hundred thousand temporary workers were admitted from Mexico annually. The program ended abruptly in the 1960s, however, with no comparable new path for temporary workers. In a recent paper, the Immigration Policy Center summarized the situation thus: “New admission restrictions made it virtually impossible for workers without close U.S. citizen relatives or a college degree to immigrate lawfully. People who could have come lawfully before the 1960s could no longer do so. All of a sudden, they had no line to stand in.”

As for the individuals who make up our “nation of immigrants,” their stories are too varied and numerous to even attempt to draw conclusions upon which national policy ought to be based. I offer three, however, that combined provide a basis on which to begin:

The German Patriarch — My paternal great-grandfather emigrated from Germany in 1854 at the age of seven. His father had come several years before with fellow Germans supposedly escaping Bismarck’s prisons. (This is according to my paternal grandmother, an avid genealogist and member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, but unverifiable beyond that). When my great-great-grandfather had enough means, he sent money back to Germany via a trusted fellow German courier along with detailed instructions to his young wife about what she was to sell and bring as well as warnings about life on the ship she was about to board. My great-grandfather arrived safely, survived the Civil War as a young orderly for a Union regiment and started a successful carriage-making business with his brother. He built a substantial home in town (still standing), was active in local politics and retired as a gentleman farmer. His son, my grandfather, attended college but apparently never desired nor achieved the same level of success. In the Depression, he lost the house his father built and seemed less interested, according to my father, in running the family farm than in burying his nose in French and German texts. He died when my father was 14, a shadowy unknown between my great grandfather and my own father.

A Teenager From Michoacán — One of our most-valued current employees (more about our business later) was sent by his parents at age 13 to Mexico City from his home in Michoacán, Mexico, to sell household items door-to-door. As the oldest of eight, his earnings were needed to send his younger siblings to school. He came to the United States as a 17-year-old and didn’t see his parents again until he returned as a married adult 15 years later. It is noteworthy that he chose not to bring his American wife and children with him to Mexico for that visit – too dangerous in the cartel-controlled town near his parents’ home. In the 18 years he has worked for our company, he has continually found new ways to make himself indispensable. He manages large crews effectively, runs most projects with little supervision and uses our sophisticated data-collecting and job-costing technology more expertly than any other employee, white or Hispanic. Some of our white foremen with more education outperform him in customer relationship-building but he’s working on that. He recently began citizenship classes.

An Intrepid Grandmother from Austria-Poland — In 1911, at age 15, my husband’s maternal grandmother left Austria-Poland for America at the behest of her mother and accompanied only by an uncle. She never again visited her homeland nor expressed a wish to do so. She married a fellow Austrian-Pole in the U.S. at age 16, bore two daughters and worked her entire life at menial jobs to support her family and a philandering, alcoholic husband. Yet despite her hardscrabble life, her demeanor in photographs or in family lore was one of boundless love, kindness and generosity. There was not a trace of bitterness about her situation. Her youngest daughter, my mother-in-law, inherited that spirit and raised six children, all of whom were the first generation in the family to graduate from college. Two of them started their own businesses, one of them being my husband, whose ability to stare down risk with a cheerful grin — not because he doesn’t know the danger and responsibility, but because he is brave enough to hide it from the rest of us — amazes me to this day.

What is the unifying theme? Only this: It is impossible for earthbound humans to predict with any certainty the potential of millions of different human lives arriving on these shores. Some may succeed economically and socially, only to have their descendants, who may lack the desperate ambition and work ethic that brought their forefathers here, fall short. Others may lead seemingly inconsequential lives but somehow manage to instill in their progeny an internal resilience and optimism that sustains families and communities for generations.

Our Story

Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I started a small construction service business (thank you, Ronald Reagan, we never appreciated what an ideal climate for business you provided until we met the current administration). About 1996, when we reached a point where we needed more employees to serve our expanding customer base, we published advertisements in newspapers with regional circulations. We received over 80 responses, interviewed 40 applicants and hired the 10 best prospects. By the end of the summer, six months later, all had left.

The reasons varied from personal problems, including drugs or alcohol problems, traffic violations and other legal entanglement, to the physical demands of the job. They did not include low pay or unsafe working conditions.
Not knowing where we could find a reliable source of future employees, we turned to the placement director of the local college where we had found students willing to work on a part-time basis. He suggested instead contacting a member of his church who might know some recent Hispanic immigrants looking for work. Thus we officially became employers of a (partly) Hispanic workforce.

First, let it be clear that we have always done everything legally required when hiring any employee — Caucasian, black or Hispanic. Everyone completes the same I-9 and W-4 form, everyone is reported to the state as a new hire, everyone takes a pre-placement physical and receives training and safety equipment appropriate to their job.

I bristle when I hear generalizations accusing employers of exploiting their employees by paying low wages, paying in cash or skimping on safety or benefits. We have been a Drug Free Workplace for 14 years, and that has helped our OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) rating (3.1) as well as our safety record (Experience Moderation Rate of .7). We pay for 75-100 percent of Blue Cross Blue Shield group health insurance for all full-time employees (36 covered employees, plus 66 dependents at this writing).

In the past, we held free regular English as a Second Language classes during the off-seasons. Those have been discontinued, however, due to rising health-insurance costs and the improved fluency of our employees. We’ve been to weddings, Quinceaneras (a Mexican celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday) and soccer games. At company Christmas parties, the children of Mexican employees chatter away about their teachers and classes, no less fluent in English than their white counterparts. Our Hispanic employees have been introduced to softball, technology and merit raises, the latter, interestingly, meeting some resistance.

A Missing Workforce

Well-meaning advisors have suggested that we take advantage of the H2B temporary visa program. We find it paternalistic, though, even ignoring the patronage system in Mexico that feeds it. And if it could supply the number and type of employee we need — and it cannot — it still is in direct conflict with the type of permanent, trained and ambitious worker that would help our company grow.

The number of H2B visas granted annually by the U.S. government falls well below the demand by employers (pre-2008, anyway). There simply were not enough American citizens born 20 to 30 years ago.

Tangentially, the economists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner speculate that the drop in crime rates in the 1990’s was due to the national legalization of abortion in 1973. In their eyes, abortion rights played a bigger role in reducing crime than a robust economy or police work.

Maybe some of those unborn citizens could be working instead of illegal immigrants, but they were never born. In 1990, 25 percent of all pregnancies ended in abortion — 1.6 million lives lost in all, just that year.

A few years ago, the owner of a small engine manufacturing facility in Wisconsin complained to a friend of mine about the lack of reliable workers. “We used to be able to hire kids off the farm, right out of high school, but that source seems to have dried up,” he said. There may have been other causes of this shortfall (more young adults going off to college, etc.) but wouldn’t one million more births per year after 1973 have helped the labor pool just a bit, 20 and 30 years on?

Despite all, it has only been since Barack Obama took office in 2008 that the lack of resolution on immigration has become a top concern for our company. I didn’t vote for Mr. Obama because I disagreed with his views on just about everything. I was hopeful, though, that his election would bring positive change to the national immigration situation.
My hopes for clarity and national unity on immigration law are dashed. The president apparently eschews collaboration and seems uninterested in the drudgery of turning speeches into reality.

Sometime around 2008, about one-third of our employees’ driver licenses were not renewed by the state of Indiana. In our service-related business, drivers are essential to our work, and no one whose driving record can’t be checked on an annual basis can drive company vehicles.

In 2010 or 2011 we began to E-Verify new hires, since we couldn’t afford to hire any new non-drivers. The E-Verify system uses an individual’s state driver license number as one document to verify employment eligibility, so the state has become the de-facto E-Verifier for us.

Now, seven years after the 2008 recession, which hit the construction-related industry pretty hard, we’re still in business, with most of the key employees we had then.

But things are more somber and uncertain; bonuses and raises are scarce. Our health-insurance premiums increased by double-digit percentages in 2012 and 2013 and 9 percent this year, and this with our group plans still not fully subject to the Affordable Care Act regulations until 2016, thanks to solid advice from an insurance agent and the prudent timing of our policy renewal.

We’re now paying $10,000 per family after employee contributions for high-deductible plans ($6000-$10,000 in-network). We used to make contributions to Employee Health Savings Accounts to help offset the high deductibles but dropped that in 2014 in order to maintain employee premium contributions at the same dollar level as 2013. We looked at the exchange options available to employees and discovered that the plans would be just as expensive as our current ones, only with narrower networks. And some employees hired before we began to E-Verify might not be able to purchase insurance at all.

In summary, the Affordable Care Act is more of a threat to our future than the unresolved immigration situation, but together they form a potential knockout punch for our company.

As the decision-maker on health insurance for our company, I squirm at the paternalistic and personally invasive nature of this role. But, pace Jonathan Gruber’s revelations concerning the intelligence of the American voter, the candidates themselves did not understand the intricacies of healthcare and health insurance well enough to clarify for voters the details and pitfalls of the various options. In addition, most citizens and especially most politicians have never purchased health insurance on their own, and certainly most have not done so on behalf of employees.

Similarly, those who bemoan all immigration-reform proposals as gifts to big business or as a threat to the jobs of American workers should listen harder to small-business owners who have been hiring less-skilled workers in good economic times and bad. The immigrants that we have hired have helped sustain the jobs of the native-born Americans we employ because they have allowed our company to grow. Our company is not the only one that understands that the skills of native-born high-school graduates and the skills of less-educated immigrants complement each other in ways that benefit individuals and a company as a whole.

A study in 2013 confirmed this: “Less-skilled native-born workers have a comparative advantage in jobs that require communications skills and managerial ability. Less-skilled immigrants have a comparative advantage in jobs that require physical strength and stamina: labor-intensive occupations such as building maintenance, landscaping, construction, food processing, food preparation and food service.” Our company’s situation could not have been described better.
But again, no generalization can describe each individual. Within both groups, there are individuals who fit the norm and those who defy it.

Competing views abound. In June of last year, George Borjas’ book, Immigration Economics, found that where immigration increases the number of workers in a skill group by 10 percent it reduces wages by 4 percent.
A visiting scholar at The American Enterprise Institute concluded: “Rather than claiming that immigrants perform work Americans are unwilling to do, perhaps it is more accurate to say they perform tasks at wages Americans are unwilling to take.”

The discussion echoes the Wal-Mart debate: That is, Americans may be unwilling to work at these wages but they are also unwilling as consumers to pay the price for their fellow workers’ higher wages.

Studies such as those by Professor Borjas, when used by opponents of more-liberal immigration policies, seem to argue that selective hiring and retention based on employers’ concern for their bottom line is unfair. Yet, the same researcher who referenced Immigration Economics above approvingly cites another study describing the unintended negative effects of minimum wage laws on low-skilled workers.

Some politicians think that tax policy can encourage or discourage hiring, and to some extent our company has found that to be true. Certainly, we’re not going to employ more than 50 full-time people as long as the Affordable Care Act exists. But no tax relief or stimulus can magically produce ambitious, productive employees, especially those who haven’t been born. Good employees, whatever their origin, will always be worth the investment in training, benefits and promotion. Even in a good economy, one in which we’re desperate for workers, we still can’t afford at any wage employees who fail drug screens, frequently miss work due to personal problems or who just have a poor work ethic and disruptive attitude.

Conclusion

Any so-called comprehensive reform — whether of immigration, healthcare or the financial sector — that presumes to account for every situation and every adaptation an individual might make will be in need of reform itself a few decades on. Indeed, the failure of most social reforms is rooted in an attempt to make every outcome “fair” for those who fall into its clutches.

It is better, I believe, to simply allow varied opportunities to exist, unfettered by new regulation, and allow success or failure — or something between — to be carried on the shoulders of the individuals involved.

So I do not support reform that extends the benefits (and attendant moral hazards) of a nanny state to any immigrant who does not go through the long and costly process of becoming a U.S. citizen. Perhaps the privilege of ever attaining citizenship (or bringing family members here) should be denied to anyone who is granted amnesty after illegal entry.

I do support ways to allow more workers to enter legally. Why, for example, can’t we expedite the visa applications of people “waiting in line” from the Philippines or Iraq (like the translator who fought alongside a Medal-of-Honor recipient)?14 Add to that list guest workers, scientific and engineering geniuses and, really, anyone who wants to work for his or her own happiness and doesn’t want to blow us up.

Our experience is that it is not welfare that draws immigrants here. It is the chance to elevate their station in life, to paraphrase Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant before there was any legal or illegal designation.

Hamilton, along with wave after wave of later immigrants, not only elevated his station but the station of an entire nation.
But you can dismiss the history of this issue, even the economics, and still have strong reason to oppose exclusionary immigration policies. I do so for the same reason I oppose abortion — because you never know what difference one life can make.

 

The author, a member of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is the co-founder of a successful business who lists her greatest honor as her husband and children. The couple took out a small life-insurance loan 25 years ago and used a tax refund to meet their first contract. “That year my husband would run around in the morning buying and delivering supplies to the job, where the part-time help would show up in the afternoon. He’d work with them until dark, sometimes coming home to a sobbing new mom to help get our firstborn to sleep. We survived and eventually thrived because of my husband’s sales ability and unflagging work ethic.” She writes under a pseudonym to protect her business and its employees.

 

Resources

1. Bill Shuster. “Shuster Votes to Block and Defund Obama Amnesty. Press release, Jan. 14, 2015. http://shuster.house.gov/press-releases/shuster-votes-to-block-and-defund-obama-amnesty/ Jan. 14,2015
2. Peggy Noonan. “At the Immigration Rally.” The Wall Street Journal, April 2006.
3. Carol Hymowitz and Michaele Weissman. A History of Women in America.Bantam, 1975
4. Harvard University Open Collections Program: http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html
5. The History Channel, “Immigration Since 1965.” (Last viewed Feb. 2, 2014.) http://www.history.com/topics/us-immigration-since-1965.
6. Immigration Policy Center. Immigration Outside the Law. Oxford University Press, July 2014.
7. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.Freakonomics. Harper, 2009.
8. Fact Sheet. National Right to Life. (Last viewed Feb. 2, 2014). http://www.nrlc.org/uploads/factsheets/FS01AbortionintheUS.pd
9. Madeline Zavodny and Tamar Jacoby. Filling the Gap:Less-Skilled Immigration in a Changing Economy. June 2013.
10. George Borjas. Immigration Economics. The President and Fellows of Harvard University, June 2014.
11. George Conard. “Approach 2015 Economic Optimism with Constructive Skepticism.” American Enterprise Institute, Dec. 31, 2014.
12. Jeffrey Clemens and Michael Wither. “The Minimum Wage and the Great Recession: Evidence of Effects on the Employment and Income Trajectories of Low-Skilled Workers.” National Bureau of Economic research, December 2014.
13. Mark Krikorian. “Is House Border Bill Just a Prelude to Amnesty and More Guestworkers?” The National Review, January 2015.
14. Justin Fishel and Jennifer Griffin. “Visa Delayed for Afghan Translator who Helped Medal of Honor Recipient.” Fox News, Aug. 12, 2013. http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/08/12/visa-delayed-for-afghan-translator-who-helped-medal-honor-recipient/

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