Washington Post examines effects of Alabama immigration law

Call me a liberal on immigration issues, but my opinions aren’t far from those of Haley Barbour, of all people. Here’s what he said last week:

Barbour said he favors “secure borders for lots of reasons [but] we need to recognize we are not going to deport 12 million people and … we shouldn’t.”

Barbour said that for workers who had been in the US “for any length of time” there should be “a path not to citizenship, but a secure knowledge that they will be able to continue to work.”

There was a time when such statements were fairly common among prominent Republicans. There’s a great discussion by Ezra Klein detailing the history of support by prominent Republicans of the DREAM Act.

The Washington Post has a strong investigative piece looking at many aspects of Alabama’s strict immigration law: Aabama law drives out illegal immigrants but also has unexpected consequences. I hate headlines with words like “unexpected” — there’s pretty much always someone who expected whatever is being talked about. (I actually have written twice — here and here — about the “unintended” consequence of the Alabama law that led to the stopping and arrest of two foreign auto industry executives.)

From the current WashPo piece:

Nevertheless, a variety of employers in Alabama said they have not been able to find enough legal residents to replace the seasoned Hispanic field pickers, drywall hangers, landscapers and poultry workers who fled the state. There was an initial rush of job applications, they said, but many new employees quit or were let go.

Wayne Smith, 56, raises tomatoes on a family farm in the misty hills of Chandler Mountain, a 40-minute drive from Albertville. Last fall, he said, his entire Mexican crew ran off, and Smith and his neighbors scoured the area for new workers. The growers pay $2 for every large box of picked tomatoes, and a worker must be able to pluck fast all day, bent over in the hot sun, to fill two or three dozen boxes.

“The whites lasted half a day, and the blacks wouldn’t come at all. The work was just too hot and hard for them,” Smith said. He dismissed the argument, often made by critics of illegal immigration, that Americans might do the work if offered a higher and hourly wage. “We’ve been using Mexicans for 30 years, and now they’ve been run off,” he said. “Everyone is worried about Arizona. If this law sticks, what’ll we do then?”

It seems clear that driving workers out of an economy will free up jobs for other workers, probably reducing unemployment slightly. But economies don’t grow by shrinking. Fewer workers — especially those best suited for jobs that are vital to an economy — means higher labor costs, more empty housing units, less business at retail stores, and less tax revenue.

Yes, less tax revenue. Certainly, undocumented workers sometimes get the benefit of public spending on major things like health care and education, but those workers pay sales taxes directly. They pay property taxes vicariously. And many undocumented workers pay withholding and payroll taxes on false Social Security numbers — they can’t file for refunds on those taxes and they are contributing to benefits programs (Social Security and Medicare) that they’ll never get to take advantage of.

Maybe now that net migration from Mexico has fallen to zero or even less, tempers will calm and we’ll get some real movement on immigration reform, building on Obama’s executive order last week.