Jeff Berger —
Outside of California, I don’t think people are aware of the progress the state is making on immigration reform. Recently the Santa Cruz Sentinel published an article by Pauline Bartalone about illegal immigrants in California that was also reprinted in the San Jose Mercury. The article featured the fact that illegal immigrants can now drive legally in California. There are roughly 700,000 such illegal immigrants. As Bartalone notes, being able to drive legally is a huge factor in making life easier for these people. But what also struck me about this law is that in California it is very uncontroversial. Why wouldn’t Californians want to make life easier for illegal immigrants? Regarding a debate in the state legislature, Republican state senator Jeff Stone said, “We don’t have enough revenue to take care of every citizen in the state of California,” but a driver’s license is a win-win for everybody. If so, then why is California the only state in the country that enables illegal immigrants to drive?
California has gone further than driver’s licenses to improve the lives of illegal immigrants. Since keeping illegal immigrants healthy should be uncontroversial for caring people, another change in the law prevents healthcare providers and other professionals from being barred from obtaining licenses to practice in California because of their immigration status. The legislature also enabled undocumented children to get full coverage in Medi-Cal, California’s healthcare program for the poor.
Bartalone explains that when lawmakers from California’s minority Republican Party oppose pro-immigrant legislation, their arguments focus on the scarcity of resources. One of the changes allows undocumented students the right to in-state tuition at California public universities and community colleges and access to state-funded grants for higher education. However, resources in the California education system are, in fact, limited. Likewise, a new proposal to expand Medi-Cal to illegal immigrants involves a scarcity of resources.
Other measures in California ban law enforcement from detaining people solely because of their immigration status. Employers are prohibited from checking the legal status of existing employees or of applicants who have not been offered a job. Many of these changes are about bringing illegal immigrants out of the shadows. By doing so, law enforcement may be assisted by illegal immigrants who might otherwise be afraid to report crimes. Still, such laws are not without controversy, particularly after a San Francisco woman was murdered by an illegal immigrant in July 2015.
In the aftermath of this murder, an article appeared on CNN’s website about so-called sanctuary cities shortly. But San Francisco is not the only city with this label. More than 200 state and local jurisdictions have policies that call for not honoring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention requests, the agency’s director, Sarah Saldana, told Congress in March 2015. San Francisco is one of dozens of cities, counties, and states across the country that have laws, policies, or regulations that prevent employees from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement efforts. Thus, to a degree we have a conflict between federal, state and local authorities. Some people, including Donald Trump, believe that illegal immigrants are associated with crime; ergo, if you are an illegal immigrant, then you are assumed to be a criminal. And yet supporters say that such sanctuary policies are widely supported by police groups such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police and chiefs from the nation’s largest police departments because they help communities unite to fight crime.
Yet another reason why both legal and illegal immigration are controversial is the way it affects the economy. This is an issue where the business community plays the role of liberals while American laborers play the role of conservatives. Business owners like low wages and laborers like higher wages. Immigrants from Mexico are more willing than Americans to accept low wages in the U.S. because the dollars they send home to their families are worth a lot. In other words, the differences in the standard of living between the two countries is itself the source of problems, which is why it behooves Americans to want to improve living conditions in Mexico.
By law U.S. farmers are supposed to adhere to minimum wage laws, as well as child and safety labor laws, which is clearly not happening. As long as illegal immigrants live in fear of law enforcement officials, farmers and business owners will exploit them and immigrants will be subject to harsh working conditions—conditions that American laborers are unwilling to accept.
Americans worry about losing jobs to immigrants. That is a problem. However, these same Americans need to recognize that if businesses are forced to pay laborers higher wages than the low wages they are paying to Mexican immigrants, businesses will try to pass on the costs to the consumer. If migrant farm workers are being paid according to how much they “produce” and are not subject to minimum hourly wage laws, then the farmers are not following the law. Any changes to conform to minimum wage laws or to raise the minimum wages are likely to be felt in the form of higher food prices. Nevertheless, such structural changes would benefit low-wage working Americans. The country would adjust. In any case, American workers shouldn’t complain about immigrants taking their jobs unless they are willing to endure higher food prices. That seems like a reasonable price to pay for eliminating the incentives that poor Mexicans have for migrating to America.