Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Who Is My Neighbor?

With all the talk about immigration policy lately (and some legitimate frustration that many Catholics feel with certain bishops who appear to be actively encouraging or legitimizing illegal immigration -- which is after all a law-breaking activity) I've been thinking a bit about Catholic teaching, economics, and immigration policy.

It seems to me that a lot of what is being argued about in regards to immigration (aside from the obvious point that people should not break the law when entering the country) is what your proper frame of reference should. For instance, if someone argues that cheap immigrant labor depresses the going rate for unskilled labor and thus deprives uneducated native-born Americans of a living wage -- that ignore the benefit to the immigrant laborer who even at minimum wage may be making 5-10 time what he could have made in his country of origin.

Obviously, choosing a frame of reference that only looks at the effect of immigration on native-born US citizens assumes a certain understanding of what a nation is, and how citizens of a nations should treat fellow citizens versus foreign nationals.

You see a similar frame of reference issue when people discuss outsourcing jobs. I have seen it lamented from time to time that with the decline of the US auto industry, one of the final areas in which a man with only a high school education would (including overtime) expect to make over 100k a year is drying up. Now, one of the reasons I'm particularly unsypathetic to this like of argument is that my father (who had a college degree and ran the planetarium at a community college for twenty-five years) certainly never got anywhere near 100k in annual salary, despite working very long hours. Nor do I, with my college degree, make anywhere near that much yet. But leaving issues of class envy aside, why is it a fundamentally more worthy thing to assure the income of a family in Detroit than a family in Mexico City or Seoul or what-have-you?

In Christian terms, this seems to be a question of, "Who is my neighbor?" Do we have a greater duty to make sure that US-born agricultural workers do not see their incomes fall by keeping immigrant workers out, or do we have a greater duty to help those would-be immigrants who want to enter the US in search of higher wages than are available in their native lands?

Now, of course, all of this is reliant on a semi-libertarian approach to immigration: "Let them in and give them the chance to improve their lots. It's worked in the past." I think the problem becomes more tricky if one makes certain liberal economic assumptions that some of our bishops seem attached to. It's one thing to say, "If an immigrant is happy to do the same work for less, let him do so," but another to say, "Let's displace a US-born worker with an immigrant worker and pay the immigrant the same since that's more just." At that point, why exactly are you taking the job away from the US-born worker?

Historically, when un-educated immigrants have entered this country, they have taken jobs which are considered to be on the lowest rungs of the employment ladder. They've done the hardest, most menial labor and received the lowest pay. However, this has been more than they made in their native lands, and it has provided them with a powerful work ethic to improve themselves and their children so that they won't be permanently trapped in those jobs. And although there have always been some US-born citizens who have seen immigrant labor as a threat, the flow of those immigrants has also provided the incentive to US-born workers to make sure they have the requisite skills not to be drive into unemployment by immigrant competition.

This can be a hard thing to watch. It means that recent immigrants often live in poverty, and unskilled US-born workers often find themselves out of work. But the general trend during the 19th and early 20th century when the immigration floodgates were wide open was towards improvement for all concerned.

However, if one desires fixed 'living wages' or 'just wages' and an extensive safety net, I don't know what that does to this picture.

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