However, I find it puzzling that a serious, thoughtful economist like Sowell makes this kind of mistake:
Even in occupations where illegals are concentrated, such as agriculture, cleaning, construction, and food preparation, the great majority of the work is still being done by people who are not illegal aliens.....(T)he highest concentration of illegals is in agriculture, where they are 24 percent of the people employed. That means three-quarters of the people are not illegal aliens. But when will the glib phrase-mongers stop telling us that the illegals are simply taking "jobs that Americans won't do"?
Professor Sowell knows full well that the level of aggregation used to construct large industry categories like "agriculture" and "construction" empties this statement of analytic content. He also knows, I would have thought better than I, that economic decisions are not about averages, but about what happens at the margin. The U.S. arguably has the freest labor markets in the world, yet the burden of regulation still affects hiring and production decisions at the margin. The use of illegal, off-books and grey market labor has for years been the safety valve that excused our politicos from having to confront the real costs imposed by the absurdly low levels of legal immigration permitted by our current laws.
We do not need illegal immigration; in fact, it is a national shame that we have looked the other way while it has gone on unabated ever since Simpson-Mazzoli. What we do need is greatly increased legal immigration. There should be no attempt to ration access to the U.S. labor market for any reasons other than criminal background or public health threat. Because there is one job Americans won't do, and haven't done for thirty years or more. Americans will not do the work of begetting and raising children.
The total fertility rate of American women fell below replacement in 1971, and although it has increased slightly since the rate hit bottom in 1976, Americans still do not replace themselves through reproduction. Even more telling , the percent of American women who age beyond childbearing without having borne a single child has, over the same time period, doubled -- from 10% to nearly 20%.
There are many adjustments an economy makes in the face of fewer, and therefore more expensive, workers. One, of course, is to replace labor with capital. The American economy is adept at such realignments, and if we insist on halting illegal immigration without substituting the legal kind, economic actors will make those adjustments. But there are some professions, and some industries, where there is a limit to how much a machine can do.
Thomas Sowell and Tom Tancredo and James Sensenbrenner may not think we need more workers to pick the strawberries, build the roads, or cut up the chickens. But who is going to drain their catheters, swab their bedsores, and spoon feed them Jello when they are too old and frail to blockade the borders?