The Christian Science Monitor reported two years ago that there are between 7 million and 20 million, or more, illegal immigrants here. These people typically take up the bottom strata of jobs, filling the least desirable jobs, often for wages lower than would be acceptable for citizens. In the 1990’s this supply of cheap labor was viewed as a key component in avoiding inflation. For that reason and because many key businesses (and industries) relied on this cheap labor supply, the nation turned it’s back on this “problem.”
Paul Krugman, the liberal economist who writes for the New York Times, wrote some time ago that this situation was not a partisan issue. His analysis suggested that illegal immigration was a net economic loss for the country. While many businesses were profiting off this labor source, the country as a whole was paying a significant amount of money for public education, and health care. While many illegal immigrants were paying taxes, often through false social security numbers, many others were not paying taxes. These people accepted cash under the table from employers who were able to pay substandard wages and on top of that avoid paying withholding taxes. As we know, many politicians were found to have employed illegals this way as domestic help.
I don’t think that anyone disagrees that the deportation of illegals in mass would have a substantially disruptive effect on business here and a sharply inflationary effect. This seems to be the main reason that the “law and order” arm of the Republican Party cannot get anything done about the influx of undocumented immigrants, even with a Republican dominated legislative branch (until a couple of years ago), a Republican president and a Republican-heavy judicial branch. Our economy is rather delicately balanced right now and the disruption caused by massive deportation could have a strong negative effect.
Because we have only made largely token efforts to enforce our immigration laws and at least certain sectors of the economy have profited by the exploitation of illegals as cheap labor, you could very well say that the illegals are here at our sufferance — with a nod and a wink from business.
The economy has always played a role in attitudes toward immigrants, both legal and illegal. Chinese people were shipped here in mass to provide labor for the construction of the railroads in the nineteenth century. The transcontinental line reached Tacoma mid-century, then lines were built to Seattle from the south and from the east and between Seattle and Newcastle where there were extensive mining interests. When this was done hundreds of Chinese were left in the Seattle area. They found jobs in town and what would now be called a Chinese ghetto developed here. There was a regional economic downturn here in the 1860’s and vigilantes rounded up almost all the Chinese in town and marched them to the end of a pier where they waited for several days for a ship bound for San Francisco. Some were put on the first ship to arrive and the remainder went on the next one. The impetus for this was the view that the Chinese were taking jobs that whites should have in hard times.
In the 1880’s “exclusion laws” were passed by the federal government which rendered it illegal for anyone to come here from China. A federal law passed in 1882 limited U.S. citizenship “to aliens being free white persons and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” The Chinese who were already here were undocumented, denied any hope of citizenship and the subject of a great deal of abuse.
The Alaska gold rush and a disastrous fire in Tokyo created a local lumber boom which led to the importation of large numbers of Japanese laborers at the end of the nineteenth century. Many lived in company towns in Eastern King County, such as Sellick. The Japanese suffered much the same fate as the Chinese who were left stranded here. In fact the first graduating class from the University of Washington Law School (the class of 1902) included an immigrant from Japan, Takuji Yamashita. He was denied citizenship and denied admission to the bar after graduation. He was forced to work in restaurants until his internment forty years later. It wasn’t until 1968 that immigration laws that banned Asians or barred them from citizenship were entirely eliminated. Washington’s Senator Warren Magnuson led this fight on the national level.
Other controversial immigration policies include our refusal to allow Jews admission from Germany in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. Many of those who came here were illegals. Our current refusal to admit displaced people from Iraq has caused mild controversy.
The division between people on the question of illegal immigrants is many faceted, but some people have a more sympathetic attitude because they see the illegal immigrants in a light something like the Chinese in the mid-nineteenth century and the Japanese in the late nineteenth century as being admitted here for the purpose of performing labor, then rebuked because of their status. For these sympathizers the purposefully lax enforcement of immigration laws and eager employment of people coming here without papers is a form of admission that carries with it responsibility.