Thursday, October 31, 2013

America's Addiction to Cheap Labor: What Both Sides of the Immigration Debate Overlook

What the immigration debate heating up in Congress and state legislatures all across the country lacks is  . .  well. . . honesty, either from the GOP or Democrats.   America's immigration problem is not caused by hordes of Mexicans and others illegally sneaking across an ineffectively guarded border, taking jobs away from unemployed Americans.  Nor is it caused by government policies that criminalize workers who cross the border in search of jobs, which Americans refuse to do.  No.  America's real problem is its addiction to cheap labor.

This holds for businesses, consumers, Democrats and Republicans alike.  It might be an easy vice to break were it not for the fact that our nation has been "shooting up"  and getting high off  this drug for the past three hundred years.  The original thirteen colonies teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, until plantation owners began importing enslaved West African farmers.   Within a short period, the profitability of America's plantations ballooned exponentially.  East European immigrants were later brought in to work in the factories of New York, Chicago and Detroit.  Chinese labor was exploited to build the great railroad systems in the West.

There's nothing morally wrong with the desire of many Americans to slam shut U.S. borders in order to avoid the potential cultural clashes that come with people speaking foreign languages, or the labor tensions caused by immigrants willing to do the same jobs as Americans for less than a living wage.  Rather, the moral crisis comes about when we lie to ourselves and refuse to acknowledge the fact that the very structure of our society is based on cheap, migrant labor.         

I came to understand these issues in practical terms, while living in Japan several years ago.  Food and nearly everything in that country is expensive.  Middle class people live in tiny apartments, because construction costs are high.  As a relatively homogenous society, Japan  has chosen to close its borders to outsiders. But what does this really mean?  For one thing,  if you drive by the local bank in a Japanese town before it opens each morning, the bank manager and clerks will be outside sweeping the parking lot, or cleaning the windows and glass doors.  Schools do not have janitors.  Even kindergarteners are given tiny brooms, dustpans and buckets of water in order to mop the floors.  I remember how amazed an American acquaintance of mine was, when I mentioned to her that Tokyo was so clean, because Japanese children grow up having to take responsibility for keeping their environments tidy.  The  woman turned to me and said somewhat huffily: "I wouldn't allow my child to clean up the school.  After all  I'm not sending him there to become a janitor!"

Breaking the addiction to cheap labor, is every bit as hard as breaking an addiction to heroin or "crack" cocaine.   It is fed by societal attitudes, prescribing that the people who clean our homes, schools and offices should be phenotypically distinguishable from the ones who run our corporations.

Even so, America can choose to close its borders.  But that side of the immigration argument would be far stronger, if those in Congress holding such views showed that they could clean their own toilets.