Sunday, May 19, 2024
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Jon Birger: Trump will eradicate America’s immigration blindspot


Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t think Donald Trump would win either.

Yet every time a friend or neighbour claimed Trump had zero chance of being elected president, I would hesitate and recall a conversation I had a couple years ago with a local landscaper. He and his crew had done a fantastic job replacing the mess of weeds and dead bushes in front of my house with new trees and flower beds. Impressed with his work, I asked if he would be interested in taking over my lawn care.

He hemmed and hawed—and then quoted me a price that, based on his facial expression, he knew would be twice what I was currently paying. “I’m sorry,” he told me, “but you know my situation.” I did—he was on probation following a minor scrape with the law—but I wasn’t exactly sure what that had to do with my lawn. He went on to explain that he could not and would not hire undocumented workers, and, as a result, his prices were significantly higher than those of his rivals.

My friends in the media and in my New York City suburb never understood the appeal of Trump’s anti-immigration message among non-college-educated voters. They chalked it up to simple racism and xenophobia, and there’s some truth to such claims, no doubt. Trump’s rallies really did attract a cast of deplorables.

But it is also true that well-off suburbanites have a blind spot when it comes immigration. We benefit economically from undocumented labour—and not only because it reduces the cost of our lawn care. It is also good for our stock options and retirement portfolios. Cheap labour lowers production costs, which raises corporate earnings. Ten years from now, I won’t be at all surprised if we are reading business articles about how the flood of cheap labour from Syria laid the groundwork for an economic boom in Continental Europe.

Of course, what’s good for investors and corporate executives is not good for unskilled labour. Increase the supply of working-class labour, and the price of that labour will fall. It is basic economics. George Borjas, a professor of economics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, estimates that young, blue-collar workers have lost anywhere from $800 to $1,500 a year on account of immigration expanding the pool of unskilled labour.

My suburban friends don’t feel this because white-collar jobs and wages are largely unaffected. Take doctors and lawyers. Their professional associations and licensing boards not only make it impossible for most illegal immigrants to practice law or medicine, but they impose enormous hurdles for legal immigrants too.

States such as Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia won’t allow a foreign-educated lawyer with a visa to even sit for a bar exam. Other states such as New York do have a waiver process for foreign-educated lawyers, but that process can drag out for two years. I am sure there are construction workers in New York who would be less anxious about immigration if the newcomers had to wait two years before competing for their jobs.

The story is similar for doctors. The reason we so often hear of foreign doctors with work visas waiting tables or driving taxicabs is because they must run a years-long gauntlet to obtain a US medical licence. They have to pass two different medical licencing exams, get certified by the Education Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, and then get accepted into three-year U.S. residency programmes—programmes that often duplicate residencies already performed in their home countries.

The end result is a system that protects the jobs and wages of American doctors from foreign competition. According to economist Dean Baker, removing restrictions on hiring foreign doctors would lead to “a permanent lowering of wages for doctors in the United States.” Landscapers, restaurant workers, and construction workers know all about a permanent lowering of wages. But as Baker writes in his book The United States Since 1980, blue-collar workers are not protected by powerful trade groups such as the American Medical Association.

Now they do have a protector. And he is about to become President of the United States.

(Image: Ryan Bavetta)

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Jon Birger
Jon Birger
Jon Birger is a freelance writer, a contributor to Fortune magazine and the author of "DATE-ONOMICS: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game."

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