Friday, June 23, 2006

Bogus Indeed

Mark Hyman returns to the issue of undocumented immigrants in his most recent editorial ("Illegal Alien Bogus Arguments"), this time to refute “three bogus arguments in favor of illegal aliens.”

I wasn’t aware there were arguments “in favor of illegal aliens,” exactly, but let’s not split hairs.

The arguments Hyman sets out to debunk are 1) that labor from undocumented immigrants is a “commodity,” 2) that those against “illegal alien activity” are against immigrants, and 3) that cheap labor from undocumented immigrants does not justify illegal entry into the U.S.

The first argument is meant to present the impression that Hyman has a kinder, gentler attitude toward undocumented immigrants than some do, paving the way for his comments later in the editorial. Citing a New York Times article describing the cheap labor of undocumented immigrants as a highly sought-after “commodity” by some U.S. businesses, he says such labor is not a commodity, and that “the last time American society considered human labor a commodity is when slavery was legal.”
This is an attempt to humanize Hyman’s stance on undocumented immigrants by suggesting he sees them as people, while others see them as mere things.

There are two problems here. First, Hyman intentionally conflates two meanings of “commodity.” True, in a strict economic sense, commodity usually refers to inanimate raw materials, such as oil or cotton. But in the context of discussions of illegal immigration, the labor of undocumented workers is called a “commodity” in the broader, more popular sense: something that can be used for advantage or profit.
Having said that, it’s true that many company’s that hire undocumented workers treat them like a commodity in the narrower sense, but that’s not what Hyman is referring to. He’s ostensibly objecting to the use of the word in discussing the issue of illegal immigration. To object to people using the word in describing why certain pro-business folks are not militantly opposed to illegal immigration is a case of shooting the messenger.

The second problem with Hyman’s attempt to cloak himself as a humanitarian on the issue is that anyone who has seen his earlier editorials on illegal immigration knows better. He’s equated undocumented immigrants with al-Qaeda terrorists and claimed that those who enter the country without the proper papers are doing so because they are shiftless and lazy bums who want to sponge off the government. As we’ve pointed out before, this racist stereotype flies in the face of the facts.

This brings us to the second argument Hyman wants to debunk: that those opposed to illegal immigration are opposed to immigration in general. Hyman says, “What they oppose is the law-breaking aspect of illegal aliens.”

True enough. Opposing illegal immigration does not mean opposing immigration in general. I don’t think any reasonable person would disagree with this.

The reason why the two issues are often conflated, however, has to do with precisely the subtly racist (and not so subtly racist) overtones of those who take the most aggressive stands against illegal immigration, such as Hyman himself. You might remember
an editorial he delivered several months ago that supposedly was about illegal immigration, but ended up using race baiting to scare his audience by saying that 1 in 7 people born in Mexico will be living in the United States by the year 2050. What was scary, from Hyman’s point of view, was not the legal/illegal status of these immigrants, but the fact that they would come from Mexico.

Lastly, Hyman says that the cheap labor provided by undocumented workers shouldn’t be a factor in coming up with an immigration policy:

“Third, is the argument that illegal immigrant labor is cheap and
illegal workers take the jobs the rest of us won't. This argument is wrong on
two accounts. One, if they get amnesty and become legal residents then why would
they accept jobs at below legal wages? Two, cheap labor does not justify illegal
entry into the U.S. any more than five finger discounts justify shoplifting."

True and true. Which is why Hyman should support tougher penalties for companies exploiting undocumented workers by hiring them for less than the legal minimum wage, raising the minimum wage, and allowing those who are already in the country and working to have a means of attaining legal status and eventually citizenship.

Ignoring the incoherent analogy Hyman concludes with (a classic case of begging the question), let’s note that the only people making the argument that limiting illegal immigration because it provides cut-rate labor costs are pro-business conservatives.

Others of us who also object to the most xenophobic calls for cracking down on illegal immigration don’t want to see them exploited by businesses either. We’d like to see the border secured, but to allow those already living and working in the U.S. to be treated like human beings they are, and allow them the opportunity to be openly part of the country to which they are already contributing. And we’d like to see legal immigration expanded, so that those not able to find work and who want to come to America to take low (but legal) wage jobs that are going unfilled can do so above board. Such immigration policies are what brought most of our ancestors here in the first place, and are the bedrock of the American dream.

In the end, Hyman’s editorial is an exercise in constructing and knocking down straw men in order to frame his own previously expressed extremist views as more palatable by comparing them with positions he invents or which are ancillary to the issue on the table: how should we treat those people who have come to this country looking for a better life and have contributed to our country, but didn’t do it legally?

As we’ve noted here before, the employment rate for undocumented male immigrants is even higher than for the U.S. population as a whole. Undocumented immigrants *do* pay a variety of taxes to the government, and, despite caterwauling to the contrary, don’t sponge up benefits. Heck, even a significant percentage of our armed forces are made up of men or women whose citizenry is undetermined. And we’ve also noted that the first soldier to die in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a young man who came to America with the dream of making a better life for himself, but without the proper papers.

How such people should be treated is the question, and it’s one that Hyman ignores in this editorial.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 3.90


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