Immigration and the Minimum Wage

KCRW radio’s The Point focused on illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexican border yesterday; RealAudio is here.
At the center of the show was the statistic that since 1994, nearly 2000 immigrants have died attempting to cross the desert, despite the U.S. border patrols’ efforts to a) stop them from trying at all and b) capture/rescue them if they do try.
So the question is, what to do? One fellow on the show wanted 20,000 U.S. troops (real military, not border patrol) to take up station down south and truly seal the border. Another took the opposite view, pointing out that many U.S. businesses actually depend on the illegal workers coming into the country; that the U.S. economy is inextricably linked with Mexico’s; and that the rational thing to do is to legalize much of the immigration occuring now.
For me, either of these solutions seem better than the current reality. The 20,000 troop option, obviously, is the simplest conceptually, which always has appeal to some. Build a wall, and all that. And in the days of wholesale terrorism, having truly controlled borders doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
But I keep thinking about the second fellow, and the points he made about the American economy depending on immigrant labor — legal and illegal. And that made even more sense to me.
It seems to me that illegal immigrants serve — and have served for a long time — to fill a gap in the U.S. economy. They take the lowest-rung jobs; that’s obvious. But those jobs also have one other very significant characteristic — they’re being paid under the legal minimum wage.
And so it seems to me that to face the question of illegal immigration in a truly open and rational way, you have to also look at the minimum wage. On the one hand, if you put those 20,000 troops down there, who’s going to do the jobs currently being done by illegal immigrants? Can the employers afford to just start hiring legal workers at full legal wages? Or do they just go bust?
And on the other hand, what if you do legalize immigration? Doesn’t the same thing happen? If you let all the immigrants coming in illegally enter legally; well then, they’ll have the full protection of the law which they lack today. And presumably, the employers who are hiring them today will be under much more scrutiny and pressure to pay them the legal minimum. So again: can they afford it or do they go bust?
I don’t know the answers here, and so at this point, I’ll give a big shoutout to Jane Galt and Prof. DeLong — either of you two care to pick up the ball from here and help me out with the hardcore economics side of this equation? What’s the economic impact, in theory, to the U.S. economy of suddenly turning all the undocmented immigrant jobs currently being paid under minimum wage into fully legal minimum-wage jobs?
Supplemental Linkage:
Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) – One group supporting broader legal immigration.
National Border Patrol Council – Labor union for Border Patrol officers. Hear from the people on the front line.
Operation Gatekeeper – Department of Justice doc on one of the recent attempts to crackdown on immigration.