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Low wages the real issue in immigration debate

This may be the first time in recent memory that a rhetorically incomplete sentence has become the fulcrum around which an entire debate swings. The sentence goes something like, “Immigrant workers are only taking jobs that Americans don’t want.” The missing addenda, of course, are the words “at insufficient wages.”

It’s not a mistake that these three words have been “forgotten” in the evolution of this debate. The arguments regarding how to handle the massive, continual influx of illegal workers are completely artificial, designed to distract the greater populace from the real issue, that of equity.

While the halls of Congress echo with amnesty versus visas and “guest-workers” versus an impenetrable security zone along the U.S. southern border, the real question Americans should be asking themselves is, “Why do we need foreigners to do these jobs in the first place?”

There are a couple of basic assumptions at work here, neither of which is exactly true. The first is that all wages are inherently “fair.” This overlooks the fact that (a) given the combination of a globalized economy and endless immigration, there is a virtually unlimited labor pool, and (b) regardless of how steadfast a given worker is about wage expectation, he eventually has to eat. The combination of these factors means that the downward spiral of wages is essentially bottomless, especially when you consider that illegal workers have no recourse to even the miserly federal minimum wage.

Then there is the idea that because a free market breeds competition, employers are typically operating at a bare minimum of profit in the first place, and paying employees more would either lead to the collapse of the business, spiraling inflation, or both.

This seems reasonable until you consider the recent news that while U.S. corporate profits are now at a 40-year high, overall U.S. wages are now at a 40-year low, save for a brief period in 1997, according to

So there you have it. Low wages, layoffs, the end of pensions, the dismantling of overtime regulations, everything attributed to fierce competition and tough times – it’s all nonsense. It’s not a desire for a stronger U.S. economy that put the average CEO pay at 431 times that of the average worker, nor is it a wide-ranging sense of financial prudence that overfills to coffers of corporate shareholders while their peons stumble about in search of health insurance and childcare.

I should clarify here – the scent of the “anti-capitalist” accusations is already ripe on the wind – that I have no problem with success, profit, or a relatively open economy, nor do I cast my lot with the “root of all evil” crowd. My insistence on prioritizing equity over the obscene concentration of wealth isn’t rooted in academic fantasy, but in history. The current age of “corporate capitalism” mirrors, with disconcerting accuracy, the 25 years or so that culminated in the Great Depression and required massive government intervention in the form of FDR’s New Deal just to stave off complete anarchy. If any of you Bill Buckley-ites out there are feeling nostalgic for the urban-pastoral fantasy of the completely free economy, let me suggest to you that there was a reason people used to work 12-hour shifts, six days a week, prior to the New Deal – and it’s not that they were ambitious. It’s because that’s what it took to pay the rent.

The key to positive economic growth is a strong, dynamic middle class (60 percent or so of the consuming public). It is they who consume most of the goods, who fuel the housing market and produce new generations of educated professionals. And yet every bit of relevant legislation and fiscal policy over the past few decades has resulted in reduced buying power for this bracket.

My spending power will always outshine my voting power, especially when organized in collusion with like-minded individuals. While use of my Federal Income Tax is essentially beyond my control, I can do something to influence corporate behavior with my personal finances.

By seeking out products – clothing, especially – from unionized labor, by choosing vendors that hold their stakeholders in as high esteem as their stockholders and by approaching every investment as a chance to restore the middle class, Americans can go a long way to reverse the trend of extreme economic stratification, and to avoid the calamity that surely waits to take the place of the middle class once the middle class is no more.

Ryan McGeeney is a senior majoring in political science.