The Drum Major Institute has a report that is a must-read for anyone wanting to take an honest look at the problem with immigration in this country – or, I should say, the problem with immigration law.

For you lazy bastards who won’t open and read a PDF, the 15-second summary is this: Immigration and naturalization law in this country creates a two-tiered playing field for labor – one legitimate and one illegitimate. The legitimate labor force enjoys the fruits of the last century of labor rights, protections, safety standards, and generally higher payscales. The illegitimate one is not encouraged to leave, but is allowed to stay and work, but only under the constant threat of deportation – a threat which is used systematically to circumvent the rights and protection that legitimate workers enjoy. This labor force thus works harder for less in more dangerous environments, all the while putting downward pressure on the labor force in general, as “legitimate” Americans are forced to compete with the illegitimate market force nonetheless.

It’s a very excellent paper, but it does raise a few questions for me:

1) A central aim of the paper is to dispel xenophobic hysteria about immigrants “stealing” jobs that would otherwise go to naturalized citizens. They do this by pointing out some Economics 101 (as opposed to Vulgar Economics 101) stuff that observes that the existence of a person takes a job, but also creates demand for another one by merely existing – not to mention the peculiarities of immigrant populations in that they are in general net contributors to the economy because they don’t receive as much in social services as they contribute – either for reasons of legal status or merely their impermanence. This is all well and good, but it undercuts another (less important) argument in the paper: that we can’t entertain any legislation that involves putting a halt to immigration because we “depend” on this immigration.

We depend on immigrants, certainly, but only for the sorts of exploitive practices that the paper itself points out. If/when these practices are eliminated, the number of immigrants we have is rather inconsequential. Markets will scale accordingly with population, which is why “solutions” that involve beefing up legislation and border security in an attempt to stem immigration are pointless. But it also follows logically that halting immigration would not exactly be disastrous, either: theoretically, our economy would rebound from the loss, because all of the empty jobs in construction, farm labor, restaurants, etc. would need to be filled by legitimate Americans – people who are no longer beholden to threats of deportation and can exercise their rights to organize and demand improvements in these jobs. So there’s really no difference, here: whether we have a net population increase via immigration or not, a level playing field would allow improvements in these labor sectors either way.

But we don’t have a level playing field, and that brings me to my second question:

2) Can anyone give me an honest appraisal of naturalization law and what purpose it serves? If you look at the history of naturalization law, it evolved almost exclusively on a basis of rampant xenophobia or threats to the economic status quo:

  • The Naturalization Act of 1795: declares that ‘free, White persons’ can be citizens after five years.
  • The Naturalization Act of 1798: woops, we really meant 14 years. Sorry, French and Irish immigrants!
  • 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act: you chinese immigrants can stay and work, but you specifically cannot be naturalized.
  • Immigration Act of 1917: in fact, that goes for all you Asians.
  • 1922 Cable Act: if you women try to marry someone we’ve excluded, you’re out too

So, snarkiness aside, there’s not a very solid track record of naturalization legislation being used to any particularly useful end. So can anyone offer a less nefarious purpose for naturalization legislation? Do we have these barriers to citizenship for any reason other than to create a second-class labor force to which we don’t owe any rights or privileges?