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York: Immigration’s relationship with the workforce is rather tricky

Published: Friday, May 30, 2014 9:14 p.m. CST • Updated: Friday, May 30, 2014 9:20 p.m. CST

Haley Barbour, former governor of Mississippi, former head of the Republican National Committee, now a political fixer and influential voice in GOP circles, says he first became seriously interested in immigration policy after Hurricane Katrina.

Thousands of homes in Mississippi were destroyed, “down to the slab,” Barbour said at a recent conference on immigration hosted by National Journal in Washington. Construction workers were overwhelmed; many were homeless themselves. And then, almost out of nowhere, came help.

“We were blessed with a huge influx of Spanish speakers, and I’m sure a lot of them weren’t in this country legally,” Barbour said.

The “Spanish speakers” were willing to live in terrible conditions while at work building new homes. The experience led Barbour – who favors raising the number of high-skilled immigrants admitted to the United States – to realize that “there is also essential lesser-skilled labor that we need.”

The National Journal panel reflected much of the discussion about immigration reform. Of eight speakers, Republicans and Democrats, seven favored comprehensive reform along the lines of the Senate “Gang of Eight” bill.

The level of agreement was so high that some pronounced the immigration policy debate to be “over.” All that is left is for lawmakers to find a political agreement to enact universally accepted principles.

“If you go in a chicken processing plant in Mississippi, there’s nobody in there who speaks English,” Barbour said. “There is a very loud radio hanging from somewhere playing Spanish-language music. And this is hard, dirty work.”

In fact, Barbour said, even prisoners in Mississippi’s work-release program stay away from the chicken plants. “We have never had an inmate make it two days in a chicken processing plant,” Barbour said. “They’d rather be in prison, literally, then work in a chicken processing plant.”

“I am not very sympathetic to the idea that we’re taking these jobs away from Americans,” Barbour concluded.

Speaking after Barbour, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies – the only participant who opposed reform – raised a critical objection. Why don’t some of the agricultural interests that Barbour mentioned, the ones that need so many low-skill workers, modernize instead? With more mechanization, they’d need far fewer workers.

“I’ve been to chicken plants, in Delaware, and most of the people there are Americans,” Krikorian said. “It’s not a horrible, filthy place to work ... much of it is actually automated.” American agriculture could adopt new technology rather than focusing solely on immigrant workers, Krikorian argued. “When you have unending sources of low-skill foreign labor, the incentive to automate is weaker.”

The discussion reflected a core reality of the immigration debate. The elites of both political parties support reform. But even so, there are a few voices to remind them of the costs involved.

“Those of us who support comprehensive reform,” Howard Bernstein, who was once an economic advisor to Vice President Joe Biden said, “if we don’t listen more carefully to those on the other side, who believe that immigrant competition hurts them, regardless of what the studies say, we’re going to miss the boat and we’re not going to get this right.”

• Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.

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