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It Takes Two

Immigration and the rule of law.

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By PETER SKERRY
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It gets worse. To establish their eligibility for employment, applicants may rely on driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, and birth certificates​—​all of which can be counterfeited. Yet employers are not required to verify the authenticity of such documents, merely to confirm that they “reasonably appear on their face to be genuine.” Documenting all this on the now-infamous I-9 form completes the ritual and allows employers to satisfy the letter of the law by affirming that they did not knowingly hire undocumented workers.

Despite such ease of compliance, employers​—​no one knows how many​—​still evade or violate the law outright. Many hire undocumented workers indirectly by relying on subcontractors who assume the risk of skirting the law. Perhaps most notorious for this tactic is Walmart, which has used subcontractors who secured undocumented workers to clean its stores. Much less notoriously, homeowners routinely hire, for example, landscaping contractors who employ illegals. Technically, such homeowners are not in violation of the law, but this was small consolation to Mitt Romney a few years back. More blatant is the hiring of undocumented workers off-the-books and paying them substandard wages “under the table” with no benefits.

Such common practices highlight why American employers have grown so dependent on illegal immigrant workers. The usual explanation is lower wages, which are undeniably part of the story. Yet not to be overlooked is the willingness of undocumented workers to work long hours on short notice. As economist Gordon Hanson has pointed out, illegals are valuable to employers precisely because they are more flexible and responsive to market forces than other workers. This is particularly true in agriculture but also in construction and the service industry.

This insight also sheds light on the motives of the undocumented themselves. Invariably overlooked is that illegals do not typically plan to spend the rest of their lives here. In fact, they usually arrive as “target earners,” working several jobs to maximize income and enduring spartan, often substandard conditions to minimize expenses. With a long-range goal of returning home with their accumulated savings, the undocumented are often content with informal arrangements that allow them to avoid paying taxes and put up with long hours in unpleasant, sometimes dangerous conditions.

To be sure, their plans change over time, and many of the undocumented obviously end up remaining here and starting families. Yet the more fundamental point is that illegal immigrants are hardly mere victims of forces beyond their control. Indeed, one of the clearest and most consistent findings by economists is that the big winners in the immigration sweepstakes are immigrants themselves​—​illegal as well as legal. Yet such economic gains invariably involve considerable risk, particularly on the part of illegals.

The irony here that Republicans fail to grasp is that undocumented workers tend to be entrepreneurial, not unlike many of their employers. And as with other entrepreneurs, the gains from the risks illegals incur redound primarily to them, while the costs tend to be more widely dispersed. Republicans are certainly sensitive to these costs, but remain oblivious to how undocumented workers are likely to be seen in this more favorable light. For example, when illegals cut corners to achieve their goals, many Americans regard them as ambitious, admirable, even heroic. But when employers cut corners, they get criticized as cheap and mean-spirited.

Months of difficult legislative negotiations now lie ahead. If a bargain is to be struck from which their party will genuinely benefit, Republicans will need to reflect more not only on what they think about illegal immigrants, but also about those who employ them.

Peter Skerry teaches political science at Boston College and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

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