Both on the campaign trail and in the White House, Donald Trump has never ceased calling for the construction of a wall between Mexico and the United States.
A Pew Research survey shows his supporters are united more by their anti-immigrant sentiment than perhaps anything else. To Trump, like many of his supporters, the wave of “criminals” invading the U.S. is not only a threat to our country but is also supported and abetted by the Mexican government.
Arguments for building a wall assume that the cause of such immigration can be found in Mexico, in the Mexican government or in the criminal intent of migrants. A border wall makes sense if you assume the cause is external to the United States.
This is a belief that ignores the economics of low-wage, undocumented labor migration.
Over the past two decades, the U.S.’s recruitment of workers without documentation has drawn millions over the border even as we have invested billions in having police, barricades and surveillance on that same border.
My research, like that of others, sheds light on the day-to-day incentives employers have for recruiting undocumented workers. The cumulative effect of these recruitment practices, which occur in nearly every geographic region of the country, is to invite large-scale migration across the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a draw that is highly resistant to our attempts to stop it. From this perspective, the origins of the current situation, in which 6.4 percent of our workforce lacks documentation, lie north of the border as much as south of it.
A preference for the undocumented
My colleagues and I have conducted research in U.S. communities where undocumented Latino immigrants live and work. We have interviewed employers, mainly talking to officials at small businesses in rural Colorado and Georgia. We have investigated how and why entrepreneurs in construction, landscaping and low-wage service industries began seeking to hire undocumented Latino immigrants starting in the mid-1990s even though immigrant workers were largely absent from these industries before then.
What started for many as a short-term means of curtailing a labor shortfall turned into a preference for hiring undocumented workers. The recruitment work intensified, causing a significant growth in the Latino immigrant population in both places. In one rural Georgia county, the Latino population increased by 1,760 percent between 1990 and 2010, largely because of the recruitment work of businesses involved in the construction, landscaping, cleaning and food industries.
Why did businesses that rely on low-wage workers develop a preference for immigrants, particularly undocumented ones?
In interviews, employers describe the undocumented Latino immigrants they hire as being among the most reliable, honest and hardworking employees they have ever had. As one Georgia employer described it:
“I think about, if I had to get rid of the nine Hispanics that I’ve got tomorrow and replace them with locals, to get the same amount of output, I would have to hire fifteen instead of nine and I’d probably have to pay them $1 an hour more each, and that figures up quick. And there’s sometimes that you just can’t find people to do the work.”
Most employers we interviewed began by the late 1990s to organize their businesses around the productivity and discipline offered by a workforce composed of undocumented immigrants.
This view not only contradicts Trump’s assumptions about the criminal character of undocumented low-wage immigrants. It also sheds light on their role in a range of industries throughout the country. Over the past two decades, low-wage industries have increasingly recruited and relied on immigrant workers, many of whom lack documentation.
The economic benefits created by the presence of low-wage, undocumented immigrant workers are experienced not only by the American businesses that hire them, but also by consumers. Where our research was conducted, consumers enjoyed lower-cost housing and a range of cheaper restaurant, landscaping and cleaning services.
The ‘ideal’ worker
People who enter the United States without documents are usually motivated by economic need, a need that pushes them to embark on a dangerous and uncertain journey. Their poverty places them in a position of vulnerability that often proves to be an asset to their U.S. employers. Eager for employment, they often accept difficult, irregular and low-paying jobs that they can do without being fluent in English.
The threat of deportation adds an additional layer of insecurity and vulnerability. Undocumented residents live in fear. That applies even to those who are raising citizen children, who are gainfully employed over many years, who have no criminal record and who pay sales, property and income taxes. They live with a constant threat of deportation and a deep sense of being viewed with suspicion by some of their neighbors. It’s a suspicion often tied to racial animosity.
The combination of poverty and the fear of deportation inspires most undocumented immigrants to tie themselves closely to their employers. They work hard and avoid public places. In the words of the sociologists Jill Harrison of the University of Colorado-Boulder and Jennifer Lloyd of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, undocumented workers become “compliant workaholics” in order to survive. Employers in low-wage industries have found this disciplined, loyal and flexible workforce very attractive.
The economic power of this process is resistant to the border-control systems and physical barriers that have been installed over the past two decades – precursors to the fantasy of an impenetrable wall. It is telling that the steady growth of the undocumented workforce between the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s happened despite a nearly constant increase in spending on border patrols, new barriers and surveillance. Only in the wake of the economic crash in 2008, which greatly slowed recruitment efforts, did the unauthorized Mexican workforce in the United State start to decrease in size.
Trump, of course, pairs his call for a huge wall with a promise to enforce mass deportation. This is equally unrealistic for economic reasons. Economists have estimated that if Trump were successful in removing all undocumented workers, our GDP would fall by 5.7 percent. This is in addition to the cost of such a deportation effort, which would require about $400 billion worth of new federal spending. Finally, there is the human cost of this plan given that, in 2012, 4.5 million U.S. citizen children have one or more undocumented parents.
Although there are clear economic reasons for the presence of millions of undocumented workers in the United States, reasons that I believe we misunderstand at our peril, the current system does not provide justice nor a decent life for low-wage immigrant or nonimmigrant workers.
I believe comprehensive immigration reform would make it possible for undocumented workers to become legal citizens and demand better wages and working conditions. Their improved situation would actually help make things fairer to non-immigrant workers by eliminating the unfair advantage conferred by illegal status. Legalization and a path to citizenship not only provide a ethical path out of our current situation, they make economic sense as well.
Lise Nelson is an associate professor of Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies and Geography at Pennsylvania State University.