How Immigrants Saved Social Security

This editorial from today’s New York Times is a succinct and pointed exploration of just one facet of the complexity beneath the so-called “immigration debate.” Highlighting the extent to which illegal immigration helps to buttress the funding shortfalls in the Social Security system, in addition to the ways current immigration flows help frame a context of projected relief, is a reminder that the economics of this issue are always far more complicated than we like to think.

I was further reminded of this just last night as I re-read some parts of the Chicana feminist classic, Massacre of the Dreamers. Ana Castillo’s discussion of the Watsonville strike of 1985-87, led almost entirely of Mexican-descent women, speaks volumes about the ways we analyze changes in the job market. In that instance, much like the situation today, the predominance of Mexican workers in a given industry is hardly the result of them “taking” jobs once held by whites or African Americans. It is the result of an industrial decision to recast those jobs, eliminating the pay and benefit structures that once existed in favor of ones:

  • that the “old” worker will not accept;
  • but workers with diminished rights and mobility (immigrants) will;
  • while requiring the maintenance of conditions which allow employers to further manipulate that labor pool (no unions, an open flow of undocumented labor, etc.).

The abuse of these kinds of workers in, for example, food industries, also represents an economic savings for the average American, as goods which should cost more are subsidized through the sweat, blood, and pain drawn from and inflicted on others.

But whether we are talking about the Social Security system, or the price of lettuce, when is the economic benefit the result of too high a cost?

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