The Best Anti-Immigration Plan Ever: Raise The Minimum Wage

Former Democrat Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and Daniel J. B. Mitchell, professor of management and public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles, write in the New York Times one of the most economically sound anti-immigration plans I have ever read:

Raise Wages, Not Walls

By MICHAEL S. DUKAKIS and DANIEL J. B. MITCHELL
Published: July 25, 2006

THERE are two approaches to illegal immigration currently being debated in Congress. One, supported by the House, emphasizes border control and law enforcement, including a wall along the Mexican border and increased border patrols. The other, which is supported by the Bush administration and has been passed by the Senate, relies on employers to police the workplace. Both proposals have serious flaws.

As opponents of the House plan have rightly pointed out, walls rarely work; illegal immigrants will get around them one way or another. Unless we erect something akin to the Berlin Wall, which would cost billions to build and police, a barrier on the border would be monitored by largely symbolic patrols and easily evaded.

The Senate approach is more realistic but it, too, has problems. It creates a temporary worker program but requires employers first to attempt to recruit American workers to fill job openings. It allows for more border fencing, but makes no effort to disguise the basic futility of the enterprise. Instead, it calls on employers to enforce immigration laws in the workplace, a plan that can only succeed through the creation and distribution of a costly national identification card.

A national ID card raises serious questions about civil liberties, but they are not the sole concern. The cost estimates for producing and distributing a counterfeit-proof card for the roughly 150 million people currently in the labor force — and the millions more who will seek work in the near future — extend into the billions of dollars. Employers would have to verify the identity of every American worker, otherwise the program would be as unreliable as the one in place now. Anyone erroneously denied a card in this bureaucratic labyrinth would be unemployable.

There is a simpler alternative. If we are really serious about turning back the tide of illegal immigration, we should start by raising the minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to something closer to $8. The Massachusetts legislature recently voted to raise the state minimum to $8 and California may soon set its minimum even higher. Once the minimum wage has been significantly increased, we can begin vigorously enforcing the wage law and other basic labor standards.

Millions of illegal immigrants work for minimum and even sub-minimum wages in workplaces that don’t come close to meeting health and safety standards. It is nonsense to say, as President Bush did recently, that these jobs are filled by illegal immigrants because Americans won’t do them. Before we had mass illegal immigration in this country, hotel beds were made, office floors were cleaned, restaurant dishes were washed and crops were picked — by Americans.

Americans will work at jobs that are risky, dirty or unpleasant so long as they provide decent wages and working conditions, especially if employers also provide health insurance. Plenty of Americans now work in such jobs, from mining coal to picking up garbage. The difference is they are paid a decent wage and provided benefits for their labor.

However, Americans won’t work for peanuts, and these days the national minimum wage is less than peanuts. For full-time work, it doesn’t even come close to the poverty line for an individual, let alone provide a family with a living wage. It hasn’t been raised since 1997 and isn’t enforced even at its currently ridiculous level.

Yet enforcing the minimum wage doesn’t require walling off a porous border or trying to distinguish yesterday’s illegal immigrant from tomorrow’s “guest worker.” All it takes is a willingness by the federal government to inspect workplaces to determine which employers obey the law.

Curiously, most members of Congress who take a hard line on immigration also strongly oppose increasing the minimum wage, claiming it will hurt businesses and reduce jobs. For some reason, they don’t seem eager to acknowledge that many of the jobs they claim to hold dear are held by the same illegal immigrants they are trying to deport.

But if we want to reduce illegal immigration, it makes sense to reduce the abundance of extremely low-paying jobs that fuels it. If we raise the minimum wage, it’s possible some low-end jobs may be lost; but more Americans would also be willing to work in such jobs, thereby denying them to people who aren’t supposed to be here in the first place. And tough enforcement of wage rules would curtail the growth of an underground economy in which both illegal immigration and employer abuses thrive.

Raising the minimum wage and increasing enforcement would prove far more effective and less costly than either proposal currently under consideration in Congress. If Congress would only remove its blinders about the minimum wage, it may see a plan to deal effectively with illegal immigration, too.

Michael S. Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts from 1975 to 1979 and from 1983 to 1991, is a professor of political science at Northeastern University. Daniel J. B. Mitchell is a professor of management and public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Economists have always argued that the minimum wage harms those at the bottom the most so the argument here is very sound – I am just surprised at how this is so openly and unapologetically used against those very people at the bottom. A message to those who wish to raise the minimum wage: you are doing exactly what anti-immigration activists want. Economist Alex Tabarrok responds to the article here.

17 Responses to “The Best Anti-Immigration Plan Ever: Raise The Minimum Wage”


  • While I agree with you on the unapologetically anti-immigrant tack this policy proposes, I’m confused… Do you think it would actually work, ie. cause Americans to fill labor positions currently filled by immigrants because of the substandard wages? Fill out your thoughts on the economic side of this…

  • Oh yeah, it will definitely work. Think about it – as wages increase more people will be attracted to those positions, pushing those less qualified (either because of education, language, or growth potential) to be priced out of the market.

    The higher the minimum wage the more people at the bottom are priced out, whether that be Blacks, see here, or immigrants.

    Think of it this way, lets say that the government mandated that each citizen pay a minimum of $20,000 for an automobile. You can pay more but you can’t pay any less. What do you think would happen to Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla sales? They would plummet but the sales of Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys would rise. Now imagine if that minimum price kept going up and up? Soon the Accord and Camry sales would see the same fate of the Civic and Corolla and the Lexus’s, Acura’s and Infiniti sales would climb.

    This is the same kind of thing in the labor market only that the people at the bottom of the education ladder, immigrants, minorities, inner city blacks, etc…are the Civics and Corollas – with immigrants being at the very bottom. Read an economist reaction to their article here.

  • OK. Makes sense.

    But how would the increase of minimum wage impact (ie. drive out) illegal immigrants specifically, before or without impacting legal immigrants, or minorities, or the uneducated poor, etc.?

  • Oh, it would certainly impact all people at the bottom, but it would impact most those at the very bottom – and immigrants (especially illegal) are at the very bottom.

    With my car analogy above illegal immigrants would be the Geo Metros, or the Hyundai’s, or even used Civic’s or used Corolla’s, meaning that while brand new Civic’s and Corolla’s will be hit, the cars beneath them – Geo Metros, Hyundais, etc – would be hit much harder.

    Economist Alex Tabarrok explains it this way: “Nevertheless, they are in favor of raising the minimum wage. Why? Because it will create even more unemployment among immigrants than among natives…since many immigrants have lower-skills than natives, Dukakis and Mitchell are correct that a well-enforced minimum wage will put immigrants out of work reducing the pull of the American economy to workers in foreign countries”.

    In other words, sure some natives will get harmed too, but immigrants (especially illegal) will be harmed much more and so therefore on net balance it will be an efficient mechanism at reducing illegal immigration.

  • I’m sure we all see the irony in the “liberal” elite actually recognizing the connection between minimum wage laws and unemployment. They only choose to acknowledge economic reality when it serves their political interest!

  • Leroy Iaroccawear

    And here I was thinking that the supporters of the minimum wage just want to put a few extra dollars in the pockets of the working poor! Thank you for exposing me to Dukakis’ expose of this nefarious bleeding-heart-liberal-secretly-illegal-hating conspiracy, HP. I can’t believe I ever supported an increase in the minimum wage. Your car analogy is pure fucking genius. “Illegals would be Hyundais”. I love it! You are an asset to your race. Keep banging.

  • Immigrants from Mexico lack many skills that natives have, for example, lower language skills, education level, and because of these growth potential, just to name a few. It is these shortcomings, through no fault of their own, that make them the ‘Hyundais’ of the labor market – you know, supply and demand.

    Illegal immigrants have the same problem as immigrants but with the added negative of being illegal, placing them at the very bottom of the labor market.

  • Actually the e-passports was started under the democrats under the name “secure cards”.

    That’s were the entire RFID debate really took off. First in DOD, and then as e-passports.

    As for the Illegal Immigration debate?
    Both groups “Republican and Democrat” want the vote.

    You know what surprised me though????

    That no one in the Latino community “Especially in the Latino Business web sites” picked up on that the person in charge of over seeing RFID in DoD IS A LATINO.

    I’m still around “for those who know me”, and I am still as good as ever. ]:)

    I wish that I could do that jaws theme music right now.

  • What did my last post in here mean??

    That RFID IS BEING FULLY IMPLAMENTED, and that the CONTRACTS for RFID are being shoveled out RIGHT NOW.

    I hope that the Latino Business Community has not forgotten about this? It’s a 24 billion dollar industry.

    How the Government Buys “http://www.sbaonline.sba.gov/businessop/basics/buys.html”

    Hey people! I’m spreading the word, because I DON”T want our group to miss out.

    For those who want back ground information?
    “Presidential Directive 12”

  • It’s the semantics’ of politics of which is being played out right now.

    The policy is already in place. The contracts for which the democrats are pushing for their group “which is not the latinos” IS what’s in play RIGHT NOW.

    In other words the democrats are moving heaven and earth for their group “African American Community” to get the contracts.

  • i don t see what the big deal is i mean without mexicans here their wont be naymore crops out side an i know most of the non immigrants dont want to do the work mexicans do i dont see why they dont just leave us alone n e ways so i dont think they should inforce the law because most of the things we do amercians wont do

  • Searched us economy and wage rate in msn but for some reason found this page.great info
    Very useful post. where can i find more articles about minimum ages ?
    great post hope to see some additional comments

  • More info on the minimum-wage can be found here and here…my favorite is here.

  • I am mexican and my thought is that if we raise the minimum wage in our own country so as that it is structured to meet the minimum basic necesities of living such as food, education, clothing, rent and healthcare…….that would cause a large decrease voluntarily by immigrants of my country to migrate.. Because they would lose the incentive to migrate since they can make enough back home to meet the minimum to live.

    If you look at China? Sure they are a growing economy, but their minimum wage is one of the lowest in the world. So as long as their wage is that low, you will always see chinese migrate to other countries where the wage is better.

  • Jose,

    The problem with your solution is that it assumes jobs would stay constant. That is certainly not the case. The scenario would likely result in what you see with the minimum wage but on a larger scale: job losses and high unemployment.

  • If you raise the minimum wage you could end up hurting small businesses by forcing them to pay their workers more than what they deserve. Does a bus boy deserve a high minimum wage when his job is not worth that to the company? If local businesses are forced to pay their employees higher what is stopping them from going under the table again. It seems like it would not truly solve the problem by just raising the minimum wage. Also what about those on Welfare or Unemployment who could just sit at home and make the same as they would if they were at a low paying job. Where is their incentive

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