This week I came across this interesting item in the latest Weekly Standard email newsletter:
A quick anecdote about illegal immigration. I noted a line from Maggie Jones’s fantastic story on Postville, Iowa up above. If you haven’t read it (it’s long), here’s the thumbnail summary:
Postville is a small town in Iowa—3,000 residents and 2 square miles. The only large business in town was a meatpacking plant run by a company called Agriprocessors, which employed 900 people. On an afternoon in 2008, a massive Homeland Security raid descended on the plant. It turned out that nearly all of the plant’s employees were illegal immigrants from Guatemala.
In short order, about 1,000 of Postville’s residents vanished. Some were detained and deported. Others just fled. But within days Postville lost a third of its population, like a neutron bomb had gone off.
Hard times ensued for Postville. The plant closed and went into bankruptcy. Many of the businesses in town that relied on the Agri workers and their families as customers—laundromats, apartment buildings, ice cream shops—went belly up.
It’s a perfect distillation of why illegal immigration is such an intractable problem, both logistically and politically. From a logistical standpoint, having big illegal populations disappear suddenly can be hugely disruptive. And politically, there’s a pretty broad coalition of interests who want to keep them here. Democrats see them as a gateway to future votes, and business sees them both as cheap labor and increased consumer demand.
The management at Agri, for instance, complained that they had to hire illegal workers because they couldn’t get Americans to do the work, because meatpacking is an unpleasant job. But Agri was paying $6 an hour—so what they really meant was that they couldn’t get legal workers at the wage they wanted to pay. One suspects they could have gotten plenty of legal workers for $12 an hour. Agri, like many businesses, was in favor of the free market only when it suited them.
Illegal immigration causes all sorts of very real problems. (To take just one, it clearly depresses wages at the lower end of the labor market.) But there's a reason we haven't been able to hammer out a societal consensus on how to deal with it. For both good reasons, and bad, there is a constellation of interests arranged to support the status quo.
I refused to click through to the original story on a matter of principle – any author (or publication) that refuses to use the phrase “illegal immigrant” just isn’t worthy of my attention.*
However, what I like about this story, or at least the summary provided by the author of the newsletter, Jonathan Last, is how he acknowledges the obviously disruptive nature of enforcing our existing laws against illegal immigrants working and living in this country. Am I supposed to have sympathy for the town of Postville? I can’t muster any. The meat processing plant wasn’t willing to do business with American workers at market wages for legal American labor – so they went bankrupt. The town, which apparently was doing “well” on the backs of all these illegals working at the meat processing plant, made a deal with the devil – we’ll look the other way at the fact that you are violating our sovereign state’s laws governing who gets to come and live in our country and we’ll profit off of the cheap labor that comes and works at your plant.
As usual with a story like this, what gets left out is usually the best part – what kind of crime and social service burden did all those Guatemalan illegals bring with them? Given what we know about Hispanic immigration in the rest of the country, my guess is that the first generation wasn’t doing too badly, but as they fail to assimilate (as they inevitably do), the cost of those “hard working” immigrants to that little Iowa town would grow very quickly. So while I’m generally the first to defend businesses and markets from government interference, there are obviously a few basic regulations that I wholeheartedly support, one of which is the government’s ability to control its demographic destiny.
*The one exception to my rule is the website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). I can’t disrespect the Bishops that way, as much as I might disagree with them about this issue. Speaking of which, I haven’t blogged anything about their shameful statements concerning illegal immigration, first on the Supreme Court’s ruling concerning Arizona’s illegal immigrant laws and then on Obama’s executive orders related to the enforcement of our immigration laws. What can I say charitably except that since our immigration laws are ultimately prudential matters of statecraft, I don’t feel badly disagreeing with their opinions on these matters? What was particularly annoying, however, was their support for Obama’s executive power grab, coming as it did just before the “Fortnight for Freedom”, which was a time for the Bishops to remind Americans about their fundamental right to religious liberty. But how can they applaud Obama’s reckless disregard for the law on the one hand, because they like the outcome, and turn around and condemn his reckless disregard for the law on the other hand? There is nothing in Catholic Christian moral theology** that suggests every single poor person has a fundamental right to move to the United States – so the Bishops need to stop thinking and arguing as if they do.
**As far as I know, the clearest statement the Church has issued on a Catholic’s obligations to immigrants is found in the Catechism at 2241:
2241 The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.
Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants' duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.
I also found this older Apostolic Constitution, Exsul Familia Nazarethana, in which Pope Pius XII talks quite a bit about migration and says the following to American Bishops (my emphasis italicized):
You know indeed how preoccupied we have been and with what anxiety we have followed those who have been forced by revolutions in their own countries, or by unemployment or hunger to leave their homes and live in foreign lands.
The natural law itself, no less than devotion to humanity, urges that ways of migration be opened to these people. For the Creator of the universe made all good things primarily for the good of all. Since land everywhere offers the possibility of supporting a large number of people, the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public wealth, considered very carefully, does not forbid this.
Informed of our intentions, you recently strove for legislation to allow many refugees to enter your land. Through your persistence, a provident law was enacted, a law that we hope will be followed by others of broader scope. In addition, you have, with the aid of chosen men, cared for the emigrants as they left their homes and as they arrived in your land, thus admirably putting into practice the precept of priestly charity: "The priest is to injure no one; he will desire rather to aid all." (St. Ambrose, "De Officiis ministrorum," lib. 3, c. IX).
So it seems to me that the first question a good Catholic should be asking himself with respect to any immigrants wanting to come to their country is, to what degree were the immigrants forced by unemployment or hunger (or revolutions) to leave their homes? This opens up a can of worms for an American, as we suddenly realize that rather than admitting all those Mexicans and Central Americans over the years, if anything we should have been welcoming the poor from Africa and Asia who seem to have a much better claim against our Christian charity than the relatively richer Hispanic poor. I should note here that I agree with what Jeff Culbreath has said previously – if some sort of disaster befell our neighbors to the south, or those we could easily help, we have an obligation to help. But of course, then we are back to discussing prudentially how many “needy and decent” people the U.S. can really absorb who are also willing to “respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage” of our country and to “obey [our] laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.” Here is where the so-called wisdom of our Bishops I think fails miserably and it is time for the lay leadership who believe in immigration restriction to step up and explain, carefully and with lots of data, the arguments on our behalf. There is nothing incompatible with Catholicism and a strong nationalism that respects borders, language and culture.