Your own, Personal, Immigrant (pt 2)

Reach out and touch poverty

Politico recently ran an article titled “What if you could get your own immigrant?” which was so terrible, I don’t even know where to begin. (Even they now realize their headline was atrocious, so they changed it to “Sponsor an immigrant yourself”.)

Politico wants to know: why do only corporations get to sponsor immigrants? Why not individuals? What’s so good about companies that they get special rights that we mere plebian humans don’t? That’s not a terrible question, but then they rip off the mask of decency and show their complete misunderstanding of, well, everything:

Right now, special classes of citizens—mostly corporations (and in practice, big corporations) and family members—can sponsor temporary or permanent migrants, benefiting shareholders mainly, as well as ethnic enclaves.

This system should be wiped away and replaced with a system of citizenship sponsorship for immigrants that we call a Visas Between Individuals Program. Under this new system, all citizens would have the right to sponsor a migrant for economic purposes.

Here’s how the program would work: Imagine a woman named Mary Turner, who lives in Wheeling, West Virginia. She was recently laid off from a chicken-processing plant and makes ends meet by walking and taking care of her neighbors’ pets. Mary could expand her little business by hiring some workers, but no one in the area would accept a wage she can afford. Mary goes online—to a new kind of international gig economy website, a Fiverr for immigrants—and applies to sponsor a migrant. She enters information about what she needs: someone with rudimentary English skills, no criminal record and an affection for animals. She offers a room in her basement, meals and $5 an hour. (Sponsors under this program would be exempt from paying minimum wage.) The website offers Mary some matches—people living in foreign countries who would like to spend some time in the United States and earn some money. After some back and forth, Mary interviews a woman named Sofia who lives in Paraguay.

In no particular order:

1. Mary is not an “individual” in this scenario, she is a small business owner looking to hire employees, so we are right back at square one: a company hiring immigrants. Now, maybe Mary hasn’t filed all of the paperwork to become a proper corporation–in which case she is running tremendous legal risks.

Look, corporations don’t exist because someone needed to split the cost of a big building. They exist to minimize the legal risks to individuals from running a business.

Corporations enjoy what is called “limited liability.” This means that while a corporation can be sued for all it is worth, the corporation’s owners get to keep whatever money they have in their personal bank accounts. If Donald Trump’s hotels get sued for, say, hiring discrimination, they can go bankrupt, go out of business, and get converted into very tall waterslides by a new round of developers, but the money in Donald Trump’s personal wallet is untouchable. (Which is why Trump is still wealthy after numerous bankruptcies.)

If Mary is just an individual and not a corporation, she bears personal liability for anything she or her employees do. For example, if a client’s prize-winning akita chokes on a chew toy and dies while at doggy daycare, she can be personally sued for the full $15,000 her clients paid for the pooch. If Sophia crashes the company car while on the way to a client’s house to pick up a dog, totaling another car in the process and putting a four year old girl in the hospital with crushed femurs and a punctured lung, Mary will be sued for every last penny while Sophia skips bail and hightails it out of the country.

In other words, once your small business is at the point where you are looking to hire employees and wondering how to do payroll taxes, you should be filling out that incorporation paperwork for your own benefit. “What if we let people who haven’t incorporated their small businesses and so face a lot more legal risks personally sponsor immigrants for economic gain?” is not good logic.

2. Dog walking business in West Virginia. Let me repeat that: Dog. Walking. Business. In. West. Virginia.

Yeah, after the chicken processing plant laid off all of its workers, apparently Mary’s neighbors discovered that they had tons of cash lying round just waiting to be spent on luxuries for their pets.

(Clarification for the stupid: normal West Virginians either walk their own dogs or just let them poop in the backyard. Professional dog-walkers are a New York thing, where urbanites assuage their guilt about leaving their surrogate children alone in tiny apartments for 14 hours a day while they file biglaw briefs by hiring other people to actually care for them.)

3. Mary is already barely making ends meet at an extremely low-income job that not many of her neighbors need done with zero barriers to entry, and her idea for making more money is to find someone who can live on even less income than herself? Is Sophia expected to eat in this scenario? Don’t forget that you now have to keep track of payroll taxes and deductions–most businesses hire a payroll service to do this for them, because legal compliance is tricky and doing it incorrectly can get you into very expensive trouble with the IRS.

4. If Sophia can make enough to live on, why would she give Mary any of the money? It’s not like dog walking is a complicated business that requires a professional to handle all of the client information. Sophia can just negotiate with the clients herself and give Mary nothing.

Tags used to mark hired slaves in South Carolina, evoke

5. Oh, wait, Sophia lives in Mary’s basement and is required to give Mary the money she makes? We have a word for that: SLAVERY.

No, really, that actually happened under slavery. People who didn’t have slaves or needed a worker with a particular skill that a slave happened to have would hire slaves from the people who had them. The slaves received a certain amount of wages, most of which went to the owner but a certain percent of which went to the slaves themselves, who could save up money for pleasant things like new clothes or freedom.

Here’s a quote from the article:

According to our calculations, a typical family of four could boost its income by $10,000 to 20,000 by hosting migrants. The reason is that migrants to the United States usually increase their wages many times, allowing them to pay as much as $6,000 to hosts for sponsorships (and our average family could sponsor up to four visas, one for each member).

Where exactly are these four extra people sleeping in a household of four? The sofa?

And here’s a quote on slavery at South Carolina College:

Most slaves who worked for South Carolina College were “hired” on a short-term basis. Hiring out, or hiring, referred to a system in which a hirer would temporarily lease a slave from an owner. In doing so, owners generated revenue from their slaves’ labor without having an investment in the actual work itself. Slaves were more likely to face weekly, monthly, or yearly hiring than being permanently sold. Each year, five to fifteen percent of the slave population was hired for outside work. Conversely, less than four percent of slaves permanently exchanged hands. Hired slaves performed all kinds of labor: women worked domestic jobs such as laundering and wet-nursing, while men labored on roads, canals, and railroads. Others worked in industries such as mining coal, smelting iron, and processing tobacco. Skilled slaves might work as carpenters or blacksmiths. The number of hired slaves and the variety of jobs reflected not only the flexibility of slavery but also the importance of slaves as capital for owners and hirers.

The Smithsonian has some more information on the slave-hiring out system.

6. You economists should realize that under a scenario like this, with unlimited visa supply, the equilibrium price of visas will drop to the cost of the visa and families will make nothing.

7. No minimum wage, but only for the immigrants. Sure, let’s just make Americans unemployable.

Look, I understand if you want to do away with the minimum wage for everyone. There are coherent arguments you could make in favor of letting everyone work for whatever wage they can get and letting the market work it out. But this is legally creating two classes of people in which one group is more expensive to hire than the other–which obviates the entire point of having minimum wage laws and just doesn’t work.

8. There used to be a group of Americans who could be hired for slightly below minimum wage for small jobs: teenagers.

Teenagers mowed lawns, babysat, walked dogs, even picked fruit and flipped burgers. We still have teenagers in West Virginia who can walk and groom dogs–even 10 year olds can probably be convinced to walk dogs for a dollar a dog per hour. Teenagers also have the benefit of having low living expenses because they still live with their parents, and the work experience they acquire in their highschool years can translate into a sense of accomplishment, real jobs, and eventually, allow them to pay for real expenses. There is no sensible reason to import people from the third world to do the same job Mary’s 13 year old neighbor could do equally well, unless you just hate children.

The elimination of jobs teenagers traditionally did (through the influx of low-wage immigrants who end up doing the jobs instead,) means that modern teens no longer get that early experience with working, sense of accomplishment, and gradual transition to productive, working life. Instead, they graduate from college with no work experience and start looking for jobs that require 3-5 years of previous experience in the field.

9. The article seems to think that American society is some kind of bottomless money pit that can keep growing if we just put more poor people at the bottom. There’s a technical term for this: pyramid scheme.

“We can get richer if we just find more poor people to exploit” is not a long-term economic policy. It’s more like someone read Marx and thought “Wow, extracting Surplus Value from the proleteriat sounds awesome!”

10. You might be thinking, “What if people just want to hire someone to be their personal servant?”

As the article notes, that’s already a thing. If you need a gardener, chef, maid, or live-in nanny, you can already find plenty of hireable people (immigrants included) to do these jobs–and these are not jobs that ordinary, working-class Americans are hiring anyone to do.

11. Enforcement. Say what you will for Google, at least I don’t have to worry about it keeping H1-Bs chained up in its basement, feeding them nothing but table scraps in between coding projects.

I have much less confidence in the sorts of people who think it would be a good idea to have 4 immigrants sleeping in their basements in order to reap their visa fees. In fact, in think these people will strongly resemble the sorts of people who take in foster kids for the fees, adopt orphans to get another pair of working hands, and generally thought indentured servitude was a great idea.

And who is going to pay federal agents to comb people’s basements in search of immigrant mistreatment? Me.

However, the article suggests that the primary reason abuses won’t happen is that if people like Sofia don’t like their treatment, they’ll just use their extensive savings to buy an international plane ticket and hop back home.

The horrific old village of Hollókő, Nógrád, Hungary (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

12. Sofia, who grew up in a village, has endured hardships that few Americans can imagine. 

A village. A VILLAGE, I TELL YOU. You cannot imagine the horrors of growing up in a a clustered human settlement or community, larger than a hamlet but smaller than a town, with a population ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand.

I mean, just look at this Hungarian village:

Traumatic.

Overall, I don’t think the author was totally crazy when he thought, “Hey, why do corporations get special rights that individuals don’t? Why let corporations pick immigrants and not ordinary people?” I, too, am uncomfortable with the idea of corporations having special rights. But trying to preserve the part of immigration that is based on “hiring people to do jobs” while doing away with the part where corporations are doing the hiring is missing the point of what corporations are: organizations that we route hiring through. The logic here is thus completely garbled.

But garbled logic aside, there is a much deeper problem. I’ve been saying for a long time that the demand for low-wage immigrants skirts perilously close to the logic behind slavery. “Americans are too good for these icky jobs; let’s import some brown people and make them do it.” This article strips away all pretense of valuing immigrants for their skills, perspectives, or can-do spirit: they are nothing but mobile economic units, cogs in an increasingly post-industrial machine.

They just want cheaper labor, humanity be damned.

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