January 18, 2004

A fair trade on immigration

By: Jerry Brito

President Bush’s proposed immigration reform is a good start, but not the final answer to what many Americans perceive as an immigration problem. But there is a conservative solution that the administration might be overlooking: real free trade.

The problem of immigration is that more foreigners want to come live and work in this country than Americans seem willing to allow. The notion is that immigrants, who work for lower wages, will take jobs that might otherwise be available to Americans. The dispassionate, economically rational answer to that objection is to ask, why shouldn’t American businesses be allowed to enjoy cheaper labor? And don’t all consumers benefit from the resulting cheaper prices? But, of course, President Bush took the more compassionate route.

“Out of common sense and fairness, our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs that Americans are not filling,” the President said when he proposed three-year renewable guest worker visas. “We must make our immigration laws more rational, and more humane. And I believe we can do so without jeopardizing the livelihoods of American citizens.”

Still, many conservatives are not placated by Bush’s assurances that American jobs will be protected. They charge that his proposal only rewards immigrants who broke the law to get here. But short of mass deportation–which is impracticable and would be awful for the economy–any reform would reward illegal immigrants. The real question is, does Bush’s proposal solve anything?

For one thing, it’s unclear why immigrant workers will leave once their visas expire. President Bush speaks of “financial incentives” for them to do so; talk about rewards! But more importantly, how does the president’s proposal address the core problem (if it can be called a problem): more would-be immigrants than we’d like to have? The fact is most immigrants would prefer to live in their native countries if they could find work, but are driven out by dire economies at home, and they won’t stop coming until prosperity spreads abroad.

To this Bush also has the right answer: more free trade. Speaking at the Summit of the Americas last week, Bush said that “trade is the most certain path to lasting prosperity.” This is why he and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick are pushing to restart regional and global trade talks that have faltered lately. Increased free trade and prosperity abroad would help eliminate the economic motivations that propel poor foreigners to break the law to seek job opportunities in the U.S.

But the free trade that will do this is real free trade. An unlikely champion of this kind of open market is Brazil’s leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who points out U.S. hypocrisy: we talk a good game about free markets while trying to hide an unfair system of agricultural subsidies, tariffs and quotas behind our backs. The U.S. can’t expect developing countries to open their markets without a reciprocal chance to benefit from the deal.

For example, Brazil and the U.S. together produce 90% of the world’s orange juice. But while Brazil exports 99% of its O.J., America has to import to meet demand. This sounds great for Brazil, except that the U.S. slaps a whopping 52% tariff on Brazilian juice. That has cut Brazil’s share of the U.S. frozen concentrated orange-juice market from 45% to less than 15% over the past 15 years.

And that doesn’t even take into account government agricultural subsidies. To protect U.S. citrus growers, not only do Brazilian farmers suffer, but American consumers also pay more at the register for each glass of juice. To Brazilian workers–and indeed all Latin American workers–the math is clear: It pays more to pick oranges illegally in Florida than it ever can at home. And so they come.

The Bush Administration should compliment its immigration reform plan with a real free trade initiative and an end to corporate welfare. Special interests might cry bloody murder about–where have I heard this before?–losing American jobs, but opening markets is the conservative thing to do.

Jerry Brito is editor of Brainwash and a student at George Mason University School of Law. His Web site is jerrybrito.com.