Who benefits from the massive surge of migrants crossing our southern boarder? Obviously, more is involved than just compassion for millions of poor Guatemalans and their children. And while adding future Democratic voters is clearly the long-term aim of those tolerating the invasion, there is one group of immediate beneficiaries whose needs have garnered scant attention: affluent Americans whose comfort depends on armies low-wage, happy-to-please foreign-born workers. The awkward truth is that millions of upscale Americans risk transforming the US into a banana republic in pursuit of creature comforts. Like those wretched masses wading across the Rio Grande, they, too, want a better life.
Beyond a certain income level, the appetite for material objects declines. Even the mega-rich can consume only so many giant TV’s, fancy cars, and other pricy goodies. With physical needs largely satisfied, services become central—waiters and cooks in upscale restaurants, dutiful nannies and maids, gardeners and countless others whose jobs are essential to “the good life.” Automation can get you just so far in enjoying one’s wealth. After you pay \$1000 for a top-of the line German dishwasher, somebody else has to load and unload it.
Life in New York City illustrates this good life/open borders nexus. Spanish, as spoken by those appearing to be Mestizo ancestry, is the lingua franca in restaurants, hotels, parking garages and small grocery stores and delicatessens. For the last 17 years I’ve lived in full-service apartment buildings in the city, and the staff are disproportionately from overseas. In elevators I encounter short distinctly Hispanic women carrying laundry to basement washing machines or pushing strollers with little blond children. Immigrant similarly dominate taxies and Uber—drivers are disproportionately Asians, Bangladeshi, and Indians. During bad weather, even blizzards, armies of Hispanic men on bicycles deliver take-out to the home-bound rich.
Horrific optics aside, the current border situation is hardly novel. American immigration policy has historically recognized periodic labor shortages and adjusted the influx of immigrants accordingly. The Contract Labor Act of 1864, allowed private employers to recruit foreign workers, even paying for their passage to the US. The Burlingame-Steward Treaty of 1868 opened the way for Chinese laborers to build railroads. The various braceros programs that existed between 1942 and 1964 supplied cheap agricultural stoop labor from Mexico. There were many other “guest worker” programs that ebbed and flowed with shifting labor needs, so the present rush across the Southern boarder can be understood as yet one more such program, albeit one without Congressional authorization or public debate.
More is involved than just the historical pattern of unskilled immigrant labor flowing into low-level economic niches as the first step up the economic ladder. From what I can tell, immigrant labor is preferred to the domestic version, and this competitive advantage goes beyond just a newcomer’s willingness to accept lower wages. The US economy resembles a giant magnet pulling in the low-skilled workers with the reasonable expectation of work; it is not the case that their arrival suddenly created new jobs or they daily scan help-wanted ads once completing their thousand-mile trek. The American economy, and our society more generally, is about as capable of producing a quality domestic servant class as we of manufacturing TV’s.
Indeed, this preference for recent arrivals is sufficiently strong that many employers will tolerate limited English skills and modest education. Many employers risk government fines or having one’s workers suddenly removed by ICE. Absent awaiting jobs, why else would illegals pay smugglers their fees? Thanks to cellphones, they surely must know from fellow countrymen about the awaiting jobs if they can navigate the arduous journey. Nobody risks death for free community college or gratis ER visits–it’s the jobs and pending employers. The stampede to the southern border would stop tomorrow if American employees decided that US citizens outperformed those wading across the Rio Grande.
No doubt most affluent Americans looking forward to their very own Maria and Juan are aware that the flood of illegals brings countless criminals, drug smugglers, gangbangers, welfare cheats and trouble for where they settle. Happily for these future employers, however, this overall calamity is outweighed by the here and now of personal service. Why care that the migrant comrades of the Mexican-born waiter at the local Italian bistro were sex-traffickers or drug smuggling? Let the government grappled with the waiter’s troublesome compatriots, terrible schools, and all the rest of our imported woes.
Employers prefer these new arrivals for the simple reason that that they are superior workers. They are more reliable, punctual, dutiful and anxious to please, and their salaries reflects economic reality, not a wage dictated by government bureaucrats untroubled by economic reality. Employers are not scraping the bottom of the barrel vis-à-vis home-grown workers. That the newcomers often help support their families back home via remittances further encourages them to be well-behaved employees.
They also arrive without the “baggage” carried by potential American workers. They are far less likely to sue for racial or sex-related discrimination, complain about a hostile work environment let alone micro-aggressions or protest a confederate battle flag hanging over the bar. Having made a Herculean effort to get the job, they never demand special accommodations for some disability or risk being fired for gossiping on cellphones. Not being educated in American schools, they know nothing about white privilege, America’s horrific slave past or structural racism. It is inconceivable that the Spanish-speaking workers who dominate New York City’s parking garages would insist on the in-your-face cultural recognition now demanded by black professional athletes. Demonstrating for such tribute would probably reduce tip income.
This is the classic conflict between what benefits the individual versus our nation as a whole. Unfortunately, resolution may be near impossible. Millions of Americans who rely on an imported “servant class” for the good life are not about to fire cherished Maria from El Salvador after hearing that importing her risks making the US more like El Salvador. Karen will not quit her job as director of international marketing to raise junior. Forget about publicizing the link between New York City’s growing third world population and the city’s garbage strewn streets and the financially ruinous “free stuff” populist politics.
Ditto for alerting Maria’s employer about would-be terrorists mingling with her when she crosses the border. Just fearmongering. The need for house-cleaning, food delivery, car-parking, childcare and all the rest cannot be dismissed by insisting that the risk of terrorism has, perhaps, increased from, say, .05 to .08.
Naturally the “we need a servant class via open borders” view will be disputed by claims that the domestic workforce could suffice if only we raised wages and offered better working conditions. That is, Mary-Lou from Kentucky will replace Maria if we were just willing to pay her \$45 per hour plus decent benefits. Alas, this rejoinder exaggerates the role of incentives in shaping behavior or, to be blunt, not everybody is cut out to help the rich enjoy the luxe life.
Cultures shift, and yesterday’s dutiful nannies now attend college and want jobs in the HR Department and would be humiliated if asked to do laundry. Many decades back blacks famously providing spit and polish service on American railroads, but those days are gone. In the food service industry, for example, top restaurants once relied on blacks as waiters and thanks to their reputations as cooks, they were prominently featured in marketing food—Uncle Ben’s rice, Aunt Jemima’s pancake syrup, for example.
Immigration patriots have a weak hand in the battle over self-interest. It is hard enough trying to convince people to “buy American” when shopping at Walmart, but that task is a snap compared to convincing rich folks to boycott restaurants unless staffed by native-born Americans. Moreover, our appetite for an imported servant class is likely to grow. As middle-class Americans have developed a taste for once upscale luxuries, for example, vacations at all-inclusive 5-star resorts, they may well add nannies and cooks to their list of “must have” labor-saving necessities. Meanwhile two-career families will find it ever easier to hire cheap, reliable workers thanks to the Internet (the cleaning industry is expanding at a 6% annual rate). The soaring popularity of home delivery food actually means that restaurant employees—disproportionately foreign born–now serve as non-resident domestic workers. In a sense, America is probably returning to an era when the average middle-class households had domestic help, and this benefit is not easily surrendered.
This is not WW II where loyal Americans made great personal sacrifices to defeat our enemies. Housewives will not do a reverse Rosie-the-Riveter and assume the household tasks now performed by Juanita to save the nation. Yes, affluent Americans are not actively pushing the open borders; rather, despite the horrors seen daily on TV, they are not especially alarmed by the influx. After all, why should any prosperous American clean his own bathroom or do his own wash “merely” to keep America a first world nation?