Political Hay

Minutemen at the Polls

Last week's special election in California was a sign of things to come -- as the political system finally reacts to illegal immigration.

By 12.11.05

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Last week California State Representative John Campbell won a special election to fill the U.S. House of Representatives seat vacated when Chris Cox was appointed to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission this summer. But Campbell's victory, which was never in doubt, wasn't the headline of the election. Jim Gilchrist, founder of the volunteer border-watching group known as the Minutemen, ran as an independent on a border-security platform, and garnered about a quarter of the vote, 10% higher than his showing in the 19-candidate "jungle primary" in October. Campbell's share of the vote dropped a percentage point from the primary, to 45%. In fact, Gilchrist actually won among voters who cast ballots on election day; Campbell needed absentee ballots to put him over the top.

Lawmakers in Washington are taking this political signal very seriously. Before the election, Bob Novak reported that the sense among Republicans on Capitol Hill was that "a strong showing by Gilchrist -- anything above 20 to 25 percent" would doom the guest-worker program favored by President Bush. After the election, an anonymous congressman told John Fund that "members will be spooked at the thought of primary challengers or third-party candidates draining votes from them with an immigrant-bashing platform."

As is often the case, arguments over illegal immigration and legal immigration are being commingled (and both sides are guilty of blurring the lines). Legal immigration is a boon to America. According to estimates in a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research by economists Gianmarco I. P. Ottaviano of the University of Bologna and Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis titled "Rethinking the Gains From Immigration: Theory and Evidence From the U.S.," immigration in the 1990s increased the average wage of American-born workers by 2.7 percent. This runs counter to many assumptions about the economic effects of immigration; Harvard economist George J. Borjas, whose work has been quite influential in immigration politics, has estimated that immigration in the '90s depressed American-born workers' wages by 3%.

But Ottaviano and Peri have the better economic model. Rather than treating labor as a standard commodity (supply goes up, price goes down), they account for the fact that even moderately skilled labor is not perfectly interchangeable -- a Chinese cook is not the same as a Texas barbecue chef, as Virginia Postrel memorably put it in a New York Times column on this topic last month. And rather than treating demand for labor as if it is independent of supply, they account for the fact that businesses respond to an expanded labor supply by increasing their capital investments: As Peri put it to Postrel, "investment adjusts not to keep fixed the amount of capital but to keep fixed the return to capital,'' so ''more workers means more business.''

A company that hires immigrants to make more widgets will hire more American-born widget-salesman to move them. In Peri and Ottaviano's model, the effect on wages is positive for 91% of the American-born workforce and negative only for the 9% of American-born workers who are high school dropouts. (Stay in school, kids.)

ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION IS ANOTHER kettle of fish. Many Americans are rightly horrified by this country's inability to enforce its immigration laws, and Gilchrist's strong showing is a symptom of the mood. Gilchrist's Minutemen have been unfairly caricatured in much of the press -- one AP dispatch led with the description of one of the group's operations as "an exercise some fear could attract racist crackpots." But still the Minutemen have a 54% percent favorable rating and only a 22% unfavorable rating, according to Rassmussen Reports. Last spring President Bush dismissed them as "vigilantes" (though they've broken no laws), but he and his political allies ought to take a second look at the Minutemen and their works.

The Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, led by Tom Tancredo of Colorado, issued a staff report in June titled "Results and Implications of the Minuteman Project" indicating that during a month-long period of intense activity in Arizona, the volunteers demonstrated some important facts about border enforcement. For one thing, adding manpower at the border is quite effective: "An average six additional personnel on station per border mile proved effective in dramatically reducing illegal crossings." For another, adding manpower at the border does not require the two years of training that the Border Patrol officers receive: "[T]he Minutemen demonstrated that auxiliary personnel can be trained and deployed in three days. The lesser duties of supporting higher-trained Border Patrol and other state and federal law enforcement agencies does not require the full legal skills of Border Patrol agents."

It would take 36,000 additional personnel to seal the Southern border. Tancredo and Gilchrist favor using the National Guard for this purpose, but that would be a dubious use of military resources: The permeability of the Mexican border, while dismaying, is not the national security emergency that many immigration hawks portray it as. As Richard Miniter persuasively argues in Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror, it is very unlikely that terrorists would enter the U.S. through Mexico. Canada has Muslim communities that radicals can blend into and move through freely; Mexico does not. (The Canadians, thankfully, have been cooperative in helping beef up border security.) But a new force to support the Border Patrol along the Minuteman model, which could be built up relatively quickly, is well worth pursuing.

The Minutemen don't just operate at the border, and their work in the interior can guide policymakers, too. Minutemen in Virginia, according to a Washington Post report last month, have been photographing day laborers and the contractors who hire them with the intent of creating a database to turn over to the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS should be able to use this information to determine whether employers are following employment-tax laws. It's not a bad strategy for the feds themselves to try out, and may even appeal to liberals who fret over the treatment of "undocumented" workers: As Michelle Cottle put it in an online New Republic column, "why not go after the demand for [illegal] labor at least as vigorously as the supply? In the best cases, these employers are cheating the system by hiring dirt-cheap workers on whom they won't pay taxes. In the worst, they are abusing some of our society's most legally vulnerable members."

A guest-worker program -- including one that provides incentives for illegal immigrants to come out of the shadows -- is a good idea, but a politically injured one. Those who'd like to save it would do well to start by seriously tackling immigration enforcement, without dismissing those who demand as much as racist crackpot vigilantes.

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About the Author

John Tabin is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.