Sunday, July 23, 2006

Some Bad Luck for Migrants

The migrants in our area have had a setback recently. For some, it's a major problem. For others, it's a little glitch. What is at issue is a loss of their investment. It takes more than just gas money for migrants to travel to "el norte". This is especially true for migrants who travel up north with their families. The whole trip is roughly budgeted at a little over $2000, conservatively. I met one fellow migrant who financed his trip with $3000. With today's gas prices, a family can expect to pay $300 or more for gasoline for every vehicle. Right off the top, if housing is not available, a family will need about $1000 to pay for the first month's housing. That's about $500 rent and $500 security deposit. In addition, there are food expenses. At first, with no kitchen or food prep area, migrant families will tend to go out to eat. Depending on how long it takes to find a place to live, the dining expenses can add up. They can save a little bit of money by eating sandwiches and other snacks, but it's neither satisfying nor exciting.
So, this past week, the feds asked the company where we work for a list of social security numbers for all the employees for verification. After going through them, they discovered a large number of people who need to show proof of their eligibility to work. The feds have given the employees 5 days to furnish these documents. Obviously, there are none. A couple things are at issue. Some of the migrants make up a social security number from thin air. Employers have no way of knowing whether a number is real or fake as there is no self-verifying feature like credit card numbers have. In case you didn't know, credit card numbers use a mathematical formula that can tell you if the number is fake. Social security numbers have no such security. The other issue is for those who went through the expense of buying identities. Some of them have the social security numbers of children whose parents have sold this information. This sets off red flags as well.

Many of these hard-working people are now having to make new plans. Their season here is over. The sad thing is that many of them were barely getting to earn back what they spent on their trip here. Others had not arrived at the break-even point yet. After the letters started coming in, the mood became somber around the factory. The break room is usually buzzing with chatter during breaks and lunch. This past Friday, the break room was quiet.

I don't know if they said it in jest or if they were serious. Some of the migrants said things like "por que no se esperaban hasta el fin de la temporada?", which is "why didn't they wait until the end of the season?" If it was a joke, it's funny. If it wasn't a joke, then it indicates that the feds usually wait until the end of the season to verify work eligibility. This is akin to beefed up checkpoints when a big load of drugs is expected to pass or when sheriff's deputies raid illegal casinos in a flurry. You know there is a wink-wink relationship in which law enforcement allows things to occur in exchange for the occasional "big bust" or "big crackdown" that makes headlines.

Much more is affected than just the profitability of all these migrant ventures. There are other consequences that have significant impacts upon the families, the community, and the employers. The families, for example, will have to look for less profitable jobs in order to try to recoup their investment or to mitigate the loss. Another problem is that the children of these Mexican families end up in programs like Head Start while they are here. We know that poverty is a cycle that needs to be broken. Much of the cycle is due to culture. Poof parents are less likely to read to their children. They are less likely to talk to their children. They are less likely to teach their children shapes, numbers, and other pre-school building blocks of knowledge. For these children, the opportunity to attend a development program like Head Start is the only stimulating environment they will have for the rest of the year.

The community suffers when a working season is cut short for migrant families as well. Keep in mind that the migrants don't live in a vacuum. They pay rent, eat food, seek entertainment, and go around "garajeando" while they are living in "el norte". When these migrants lose their jobs, they move on. A local economy can lose a big influx of income when migrants leave. In a big city, the impact is probably not a major factor. However, many of the plants are in towns with less than 10K and 5K residents. Heck, some of the towns up here would be hard pressed to reach 2K inhabitants. The smaller the town, the bigger the economic impact.

Employers also face problems from hiring undocumented workers. For one, they may face fines and penalties. The more immediate problem is filling the vacant positions they need to continue production. If a plant does not produce, you have a downstream and upstream of other dependent businesses that are affected. For example, a farmer may have tons of produce that are just sitting there waiting to be processed until the plant can hire people. During this time, the crop loses water from evaporation, which means that the farmer loses money because he is paid by weight. There are truck drivers who must carry the product from the farm to the plant who lose out on trips. There are truck drivers who carry finished goods to wholesalers or direct buyers who won't have the trip. There are grocery stores that may offer a more expensive selection because the less expensive items are held up in production.

I guess my point is that many people think that there is no connection between themselves and migrant workers. Preferring, instead, to believe that migrant workers are there to "take American jobs". It's tough to explain the economic concepts of comparative advantage and the expansion of the production possibility frontier to somebody who is angry about not being hired for a job that went to a migrant. It's tough to explain that there are more options available than that one job if you are willing to let go of your constraints. I am still opposed to illegal immigration, mind you. Misfortunes like this are the main reason for my opposition. Illegal immigrants face an uphill battle and may come out losing. I sympathize with the loss of a major source of income for these families. By giving incentives for them to come work up north, we sweeten the deal for them by sugar-coating the risk of going home empty-handed. I am opposed to the lawyers in Washington creating a system of selective enforcement. If you're going to prohibit illegal immigrants from working, do it right by setting up guaranteed, systematic enforcement. Or, if you can't do it right, don't do it at all. The current immigration system encourages illegals to take a gamble. We could make up the labor shortage with a guest worker program that would yield the same results while ensuring that immigrants don't face devastating losses such as the one faced by my co-workers recently.

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