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Raising the Minimum Wage Isn’t an "Anti-Immigrant" Idea
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Simple ideas buoyed by a tidal wave of popular sentiment are difficult to oppose, and subterfuge is one of the favored methods.

National support for raising the minimum wage runs between 70% and 75% in most polls, with close to 90% of Democrats backing the idea. Meanwhile, our initiative to raise the minimum wage in overwhelmingly Democratic California contains just a single operative sentence, providing no target for extraneous political attacks. As a result, some of the most fervent critics of raising the minimum wage been forced to rely on extremely specious arguments.

Doctrinaire libertarians have always opposed minimum wage laws on ideological grounds, and I discovered the extreme nature of their beliefs in late October when I participated in an Intelligence Squared debate, held in New York City and broadcast nationally. The topic was whether America should adopt an “Open Borders” policy and allow anyone to take a job anywhere.

One of my opponents was Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University and an adjunct scholar on immigration issues at the Cato Institute. He attacked immigration controls, minimum wage laws, and other restrictions on economic liberty with religious zeal, denouncing such policies as no better than the vile “racism” and “anti-Semitism” that Americans so universally condemn. In his view, if any individual anywhere in the world wanted to come to America and seek employment for a dollar a day, that should be his absolute moral right, so long as he waived any access to medical care or other social welfare benefits as part of the agreement.

An America in which many millions of workers live in hovels and die in the streets if they accidentally injure themselves did not seem desirable to me and the New York City audience overwhelmingly agreed, favoring our position with the widest swing ever recorded in that debate series. Meanwhile, Prof. Vivek Wadha, Caplan’s own debate partner, repeatedly endorsed the idea of raising the minimum wage to \$12 per hour, a position that Caplan considered a horrifying betrayal of all free market principles.

With my California minimum wage initiative now getting public attention, I was hardly surprised that I recently drew fire from Alex Nowrasteh, one of Caplan’s closest collaborators. Nowrasteh had studied economics under Caplan at George Mason University and now works alongside him as an immigration policy analyst at Cato. Last Sunday he unleashed a blistering attack on me in the San Jose Mercury News, accusing me of being an “anti-immigrant” zealot and condemning the motives behind my proposed minimum wage hike as “despicable.”

Given that for the last twenty-five years I have been almost universally regarded as one of the most “pro-immigrant” figures in California politics, I found these charges totally bizarre. But they still warranted a rebuttal, and the Mercury News has now published my own response, provided below.

I was particularly intrigued by the supposed evidence that Nowrasteh provided to support his wild charges. Over the years, I have published some 200,000 words related to immigration and all my hundreds of articles and columns are readily available on my website in fully searchable form, surely providing him with a vast quantity of material from which to draw.

Apparently, he managed to find absolutely nothing in those reams of text that could be used against me, and instead was forced to utilize fraud. He took someone else’s words, put quote marks around them, and claimed that they were my own, citing them in his column as proof of my hostility toward immigrants. I believe this sort of behavior is considered a hanging offense in respectable opinion journalism, and I am pleased that he has now apologized to the Mercury News for his violations. I think this underscores the total absurdity of his charges.

Another recent piece, raising some of the same concerns but in a far more honest and responsible manner, was entitled “Capitalists for a Higher Minimum Wage” and ran in In These Times, a democratic-socialist publication. In sharp contrast with Nowrasteh, the author, Michelle Chen, is a sincere supporter of higher minimum wages, but being decidedly on the Left, was naturally suspicious why a “capitalist” would be advocating such a strongly “progressive” policy. I feel confident that once she more fully explores the corpus of my writings, she will see that although the two of us may disagree on a wide range of issues, my support for raising the minimum wage is based on exactly the reasons I have cited in all my writings on the topic over the last few years.

I also discussed many of those same reasons recently in a detailed interview with Steven Rosenfeld, published in AlterNet and also widely distributed across other Left websites.


The tendency to confuse practical realities with ideological absolutes is part of the reason there may exist disagreement over whether an individual should be considered “pro-immigration” or “anti-immigration,” and exactly the same confusion is found in debates on the minimum wage.

For example, many ignorant critics of raising the minimum wage to \$10 or \$12 per hour often raise the foolish argument “then why not raise it to \$50 per hour?” The simple answer is that such a rate is too high and would have hugely negative economic consequences. A desperately thirsty individual might benefit from a glass or two of water, but if you poured ten gallons down his throat, he would surely die.

Similarly, doctrinaire libertarians such as Caplan (and perhaps Nowrasteh) might think it a wonderful thing if twenty million desperately poor foreigners moved to America next year and took jobs paying ten cents an hour. To them, support for such an idea is the definition of being “pro-immigration.” But by such extreme standards, almost everyone in America—including almost all immigrants themselves—fall into the “anti-immigration” camp. Debating social policies based on such ideological extremes is as absurd as it is widespread.

In any event, my new Mercury News piece sketching out the immigration aspects of my minimum wage position is provided below. I leave it to each individual reader to decide whether I should be considered “pro-immigrant” or “anti-immigrant.”

“Higher minimum wage would help immigrants, taxpayers” by Ron Unz
The San Jose Mercury News, Sunday, February 2, 2014

Millions of California immigrants work in low-wage service industries. They would be among the greatest beneficiaries of our ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage to \$12 per hour.


Latinos, many of whom come from a relatively recent immigrant background, would gain the most. The data shows that around half of all Latino wage-earners would get a pay hike, compared with one-third of non-Latinos. The average gain for a full-time Latino worker would be over \$5,500 per year, a life-changing amount of money for a working-poor family.

Asian immigrants are more likely to be affluent, often employed at technology companies. But many Asians are also among the working-poor, and 400,000 low-wage Asian workers in California would directly benefit from raising our state’s minimum wage.

Almost a million blacks and non-Hispanic whites in California, both immigrant and native-born, would also get a wage hike, with their incomes rising an average of over \$4,000 per year for a full-time worker.

The total economic gains for lower-wage California workers from all ethnic backgrounds would be around \$15 billion per year.

Aside from benefiting working-poor families, a much higher minimum wage would help the rest of us by requiring businesses to cover the costs of their own employees rather than shifting the burden to the ordinary taxpayer.

Because some businesses in California pay their workers such low wages, the government is forced to make up the difference, spending over \$35 billion each year on social welfare programs funded by everyone else. This is unfair.

Businesses should stand on their own two feet instead of relying upon billions of dollars in hidden government subsidies. All principled conservatives and free market advocates should support this simple idea. Raising the California minimum wage to \$12 per hour would save American taxpayers many billions of dollars each year.

With such huge benefits of a much higher minimum wage, I was shocked to read the accusations of Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute in last Sunday’s Mercury News. He claimed my initiative was actually an attack on immigrants and denounced my motives as “despicable.” (Editor’s note: See Nowrasteh’s letter above.)

The charges are absurd. Over the past 25 years I have published 200,000 words on immigration issues, all available on my website. The news media has published hundreds of articles correctly characterizing my views as strongly “pro-immigrant.”

In 1994 I was a top featured speaker at Juan Jose Gutierrez’s historic 70,000-strong Los Angeles rally against Gov. Pete Wilson’s Proposition 187, the largest pro-immigrant political protest in American history to that date. My views have not changed much since then.

The nugget of truth behind Nowrasteh’s calumny is that I have argued that a much higher minimum wage would reduce illegal immigration.

The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants come for jobs, and they take the jobs that Americans won’t. But the reason Americans won’t take them is that the wages are too low, and the only people willing to work at poverty wages are often recent, desperate border-crossers.

If the minimum wage were \$12 per hour, many Americans and legal immigrants would apply for those positions, reducing the pressure on businesses to hire the undocumented. Indeed, former Democratic Presidential Nominee Michael Dukakis suggested several years ago that the best solution to illegal immigration was a big hike in the minimum wage.

The Washington D.C. think tank that employs Nowrasteh has traditionally advocated the abolition of all minimum wage laws and receives considerable funding from various business groups.

I am an advocate for business but also believe businesses should pay their way and not burden taxpayers. They will reap benefits in the long run from raising workers out of poverty.

• Category: Economics • Tags: Immigration, Minimum Wage 
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  1. I am libertarian-leaning, but not of the Dickensian Scrooge pre-conversion school, definitely not a champion of a rogue elephant’s “right” to trample others underfoot in a crowded room. The benefits of freedom are mostly theoretical unless as widely shared as possible – and we are a long way from that.

    Thus, I agree with Ron. The illegal immigration problem hasn’t been amenable to the tried-and-false solutions that have solved nothing and which have the pernicious unintended effect of increasing the demand for off the books poorly-paid workers, while increasing human misery for all.

    Nevertheless, this analogy of the minimum wage fails:

    “A desperately thirsty individual might benefit from a glass or two of water, but if you poured ten gallons down his throat, he would surely die.”

    One would think then that the 1% should have experienced torture from what amounts to their economic waterboarding!

  2. D. K. says:

    If illegals have flooded America in recent decades, looking for a higher standard of living– and, obviously, they have, by the millions– then reason tells me that many millions more will flood the country, if and when the minimum wage is raised markedly, looking for the same boost in living standard as their predecessors, only more so. Reason also tells me that employers who prefer illegals now still will prefer illegals then, only more so. Illegals still will be considered more docile, hard-working and expendable than the native born, including the children of earlier illegal aliens. Illegals also will remain more willing to work illegally, off of the books, for lower wages, tax-free, than both natives and legal immigrants. It seems clear to me that only stopping the physical flow of illegal aliens, along with a system to prevent their being hired illegally but above board, using fraudulent paperwork, will solve the problem. As I see it, raising the minimum wage only exacerbates the problem, whether proponents secretly intend that or honestly intend the opposite.

  3. If the minimum wage laws were enforced, then anyone not receiving the minimum could complain and get recompense, even those without documentation. That an employer would actually be investigated and subject to penalties and repayment, would make trying to pay people less too much of a hazard and potential economic loss. Imagine if an anonymous complaint triggered an immediate visit from labor law inspectors and that it was treated as seriously as allegations of illegal drug trafficking? You can bet employers would pony up.

    So… immigrants versus citizens. If the illegal immigrants had to be paid exactly the same as legal residents and citizens, you can be assured that employers would mostly choose the legal immigrant and the citizen, for more than one reason. There would be no economic incentive for taking the risk of hiring illegally while there would still be immigration penalties that could be levied by other investigative agencies. Moreover, once everything economic is equal, there are good reasons to find the qualified legal worker who has been assimilated a better fit in the workplace and culture.

    Remove the barrier to being paid fairly for everyone.

    It will require labor law enforcement, however, otherwise the desperate undocumented worker will be even more of a bargain.

  4. NB says: • Website

    Nowrasteh claimed that Unz’s minimum wage proposal aims to curb illegal immigration. Readers can judge for themselves from Unz’s own past statements:
    “The automatic rejoinder to proposals for hiking the minimum wage is that ‘jobs will be lost.’ But in today’s America a huge fraction of jobs at or near the minimum wage are held by immigrants, often illegal ones. Eliminating those jobs is a central goal of the plan, a feature not a bug.”

    “…economist Bruce Bartlett highlighted the immigration aspects of my initiative proposal for the New York Times and reminded readers that several years earlier former Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis had similarly proposed a large hike in the minimum wage as the logical solution to our immigration problems.

    The reason a much higher minimum wage would drastically reduce illegal immigration is obvious and simple to state. The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants come to America for jobs and just as business lobbyists endlessly claim, they are hired ‘because they take the jobs that Americans just won’t do.’ But the reason Americans won’t do those jobs is because the wages are too low. Raise the wages to a more liveable figure of \$12 per hour or higher and millions of Americans would eagerly fill the positions, allowing employers to comply with immigration requirements…”

  5. It’s hardly “anti-immigrant” of Ron Unz to be for paying everyone at least the minimum wage.

    Unless being “for” immigrants means giving them the “freedom” to be able to work for less than everyone else and the “liberty” to be ruthlessly exploited because they are desperate. I would describe that as being for illegal immigration as an exploitable phenomenon, but not for illegal immigrants themselves, as persons.

    There is a case to be made that our nation’s and corporations’ policies ought not to worsen economic conditions in the nations illegal immigrants come from. To be for the rights of these human beings means not being for or causing the conditions that often underlie the reasons that cause them to flee to our country, as well as not allowing exploitation of anyone here, immigrant or citizen.

    Truly moral solutions solve problems. They will not create or sustain them.

  6. The argument is amusing. If massive immigration, both legal and illegal is not stopped, minimum wages will be raised regardless of any arguments or logic opponents have, as the immigrants will be voting themselves higher wages.
    The open border globalists that are in favor of massive immigration that is displacing the traditional American people are slow to realize that while many native born Americans may have a latent desire to ” eat the rich”, many newly arrived immigrants bring with them their favorite recipes for doing just that.

  7. “…the immigrants will be voting themselves higher wages.”

    This bit of nativist xenophobic cant combines the delusion that immigrants are voting themselves into ruling over citizens (in actuality they can’t vote, run for office or work for the U.S. government) with the fantasy of desperate immigrants being subhuman cannibals.

    One wonders why if voting is so powerful in our political duopoly that the majority of Americans (hundreds of millions) haven’t managed to vote themselves pay raises.

    Immigrants don’t arrive to do away with the wealthy, either – those not motivated by political, intellectual or artistic liberty are here to improve their own economic situation.

    It hasn’t been immigrants propelling wealth inequality – it’s been the one per cent who have been eating regular Americans’ lunch. One could say – eating the rest of us alive.

    One could note, too, that Euro Americans’ ancestry lags the heritage of most of those south of the border, whose ancestry predates us on this side of the border as well by about 40,000 years. Nativism can only be a hypocritical settler phenomenon itself of a paltry century or so.

  8. Raising the minimum wage is “racism” and “antisemitism”? I have seen some pretty strange anti-semetic charges during debates but this one has to be the “mother” of all the most ridiculous of the arguments. In Bryan Caplan’s bizarre world, Canada must be very anti-Semitic and racist since their minimum wage is over \$10 in all provinces and they provide tax paid health care for all citizens. That would make Canadian living standards considerably higher than in the United States. Bryan Caplan should debate in Canada so he can call the Canadians anti-Semites for raising their living standards. Hmm …. Bryan Caplan’s argument seems a bit anti-Semitic if he is implying that Jews in general support lower living standards for the working poor.

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