A CYNIC, says a character in one of Oscar Wilde’s novels, is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. If that’s true, then the debate over the state of labor in the United States these days is awash in cynicism — or maybe it could just be called plain old hypocrisy. And in truth, it’s not so much a debate as a shouting match, largely over the inflamed issue of immigration.
Most of the noise comes from restrictionists, encouraged and shamelessly egged on, for the first time in memory, by a president of the United States. Such people recite figures they have assembled regarding the costs of immigration: its effects on wages, government spending and, of course, our “culture,” which some might take as a cover word for race or ethnicity or religion. But a lot of these compilations are questionable, both in their origins and their conclusions.
And beyond that, there is a great contradiction in such reasoning: It fails to take account of the work immigrants do in this country — the fruits of their labor, which are shared by the entire society. The skylines of metropolitan areas such as ours have been transformed over the past quarter-century by new construction, with immigrants providing a considerable share of the labor. Many of our hospitals, clinics, day-care centers, hotels, homes for the elderly and other institutions could not exist without immigrant employees, who made up about 17 percent of this country’s workforce in 2018, according to a government report.
A quarter of immigrants, in turn, are thought to be unauthorized. Although they are regularly slandered — by the president, among others — as a source of crime and as living off the dole, they are, for the most part, as law-abiding as the general population and are eligible for few government benefits. Not many people with personal knowledge of the matter would question their work ethic. Their labors in farm and field help feed the country; replacing them there would be a daunting task. They serve in some of the most demanding and often unpleasant jobs in our society: slaughtering animals, working long hours outdoors in punishing heat and cold, caring for the elderly, sick and mentally ill, cleaning four or five homes a day.
Strangely enough, this sort of thing is rarely discussed in any serious way on the cable outlets and social media. There is much in the way of insult and calumny toward impoverished immigrants (they “make our country poorer and dirtier,” said one popular TV opinionizer) but little constructive thought on how this country, with a static and aging native population and a tightening labor market, can continue to prosper without a reasonable amount of immigration.
Although unauthorized immigrants are routinely demonized by some in Congress and the media, there is a sizable part of the country, perhaps a majority, that does not consider their presence here to be criminal, that in fact sympathizes with them. There aren’t many other kinds of lawbreakers of whom that can be said. The recent immigration raid on agricultural processing plants in Mississippi, in which nearly 700 workers were rounded up, brought forth a wave of help and support for the workers and their families from people around the country, including churches and neighbors in Mississippi.
Practical and intelligent proposals are being made for dealing with the problems of immigration and work. But nothing can be done unless more of this country pays attention to the realities in working America in the coming election year and not to the dark maundering of demagogic doomsayers.