Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Georgia's illegal immigrant law fiasco exposes some cracks in the Republican coalition of working class and wealthy. 

Somehow, when it comes to illegal immigration, employers and political leaders suddenly pretend that they don't understand what a labor market is.  When it suits employers to give people crap wages, then it's all about the natural discipline of markets, like it or lump it.  If you don't take the wage, then somebody else will.  But when companies can't get people to work for crap wages, then they forget about how markets work and all of a sudden Americans are too lazy and greedy to work for a "reasonable wage".

The labor market idea is pretty straightforward.  You raise the amount offered until there are people willing to take the job at that wage.  It might mean that a pint of blueberries costs $3.75 rather than $3.00, but hey, markets.  We don't just make up a price like we were the Soviet Union.

For years, our savvy capitalists have gotten around that pesky downside to markets by encouraging labor from Mexico and Central America, first because these people were poor and ambitious, and second because they arrived conveniently as second class citizens (undocumented immigrants) who couldn't insist on niceties like wage and labor conditions.  If they did get demanding it was easy enough to have them deported.  (Then employers had the gall to say that they had to bring in Mexicans, since Americans wouldn't take these jobs.)

Of course, this was enraging to many existing US citizens, in part since they rightly saw this whole game driving down their wages and "taking jobs".  There was a potential conflict in the Republican Party between popular anger in "the base" about this illegal importation of cheap labor, versus employer enthusiasm for the same.  This conflict could be successfully defused as long as the popular rage could be directed at the illegals themselves, rather than the employers and politicians benefiting from the situation; and as long as political leaders could pretend to care about it, without actually threatening the status quo.

Under popular pressure, however, Arizona and Georgia have broken that compact and passed anti-immigrant legislation that actually does threaten the status quo.  Apparently, Georgia has successfully scared off undocumented workers and outraged employers are claiming they are face a labor shortage, and will have crops rotting in the fields.  Although, the governor hopes that another convenient set of disenfranchised, second class citizens, (e.g. former prisoners and probationers) can fill the gap, there is panic that employers might find themselves exposed to the legal labor market.

It's unfortunate that it took xenophobia and racism to break the logjam that the Republican Party had engineered to prevent immigration and labor reform.  And it is unfortunate that some farmers are going to let their crops rot in the field because $3.75 berries picked by Georgia high school students can't compete with $3.00 berries picked by illegal laborers in North Carolina.  But it may be this implosion of Republican hypocrisy that finally makes room for some version of reform.  It's up to us to make sure those reforms don't just require businesses to stop gaming the labor market, but also bring some justice to working people, whatever the state of their documents.