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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

Category: Illegal immigration
April 24, 2012 at 10:20 AM

Solving illegal immigration the hard way

The Pew Hispanic Center’s report that the historic wave of immigration from Mexico has reversed is a profound turning point, not least for the economy. One small/big element: Millions of illegal immigrants paid into Social Security with no hope of ever seeing benefits, but helping fund the system.

The American economy had grown an insatiable appetite for cheap immigrant labor, especially in construction, which became the nation’s last, big low-skilled factory. This destroyed most of the old, often unionized construction trades in the Sun Belt, with jobs held by citizens, and pushed wages very low. Hotels, restaurants, meat packing and, of course, landscaping, were another big draw. The tradeoff: Cheaper housing, food, etc. What was once confined to the southwest became a nationwide phenomenon in the 1990s and 2000s.

Hundreds died every year in the Arizona desert, the survivors paying their life savings to coyotes to be smuggled across to El Norte. Unscrupulous smugglers would hold the immigrants in drop houses for additional ransom from their families in Mexico, helpfully wired by Western Union. Some employers paid on this end, too, for coyotes to bring workers. Once here, they were exploited and often robbed, fearing the police and lacking any protections. Such were the human costs of our appetites. People railed against the illegals even as they enjoyed the benefits of their work.

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