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May, 2004

Illegal Immigration: A World Concern
By Domenico Maceri

Twenty-one Albanians died recently in the Adriatic Sea as they tried to enter Italy illegally. Another twenty Chinese illegal immigrants suffocated in a truck a few years ago. They were headed for Great Britain. Hundreds of undocumented workers died on the Mexico/US border in the last several years. The circumstances in these and other cases are not exactly alike but the immigrants' goals were the same-finding minimum wage jobs in wealthy countries.

Why do people risk their lives? The reasons have to do with the great disparity of wages between rich and poor countries. The most obvious one is that once the perilous journey is completed, jobs will be available.

The temptation to seek new opportunities is particularly strong if the two countries share a border. That is exactly the case between the US and Mexico. Considering the fact that the minimum hourly wage in the US is the equivalent of at least a full day's work in Mexico, if work is available, the appeal is almost irresistible.

The same appeal exists even in poor countries which have significant wage disparities. Neither the Dominican Republic nor Haiti is wealthy, yet the gap in wages between the two countries, which share the island of Hispaniola, pushes Haitians to move to the Dominican Republic and do work Dominicans refuse.

But the appeal for " high" wages sometimes means crossing many borders. That is the case with the immigration into Europe in the last twenty years or so. North Africans as well as Asian undocumented workers travel thousand of miles across sea or land and sometimes both to northern European countries looking for work.

In recent times, even countries such as Italy, Greece, and Spain, which have historically sent their own people abroad, have been receiving immigrants. Albanians and Bulgarians do agricultural work in Greece and also care for the elderly parents of middle-class Greeks. In southern Spain, Moroccans, most of them illegal immigrants, harvest tomatoes and peppers. When they threatened to unionize a few years ago, Spanish companies began to bring Ecuadorians, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians to replace them.

Illegal immigration would disappear if companies were forced to advertise their job needs and if salaries were to rise to a level which locals would find acceptable. If agricultural jobs paid 15-20 dollars an hour in the US, Americans would take the jobs. That is not going to happen anytime soon.

In the aftermath of 9-11 more and more concerns have emerged about both legal and illegal immigration. The victories of right wing parties in Europe are to a certain extent explained by the politicians' exploitation of fear. Conservative politicians such as Jean Marie Le Pen of France, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy as well as others in Germany and Austria owe their success in considerable measure to their strong views on the need to control immigration. By playing on voters' fear of terrorism and blaming the rise in crime on immigrants, both legal and not, right wing parties have increased their power by offering solutions which are based on little more than emotion. But the fact is that while on the one hand rich countries would prefer not to have to deal with immigrants, the aging population and the declining birthrate make it necessary to bring in new people to keep the economy going.

In essence, as long as there is poverty in the world, people will try to go to places where they can improve their lot and as a result provide sizable benefits to the economy of their "new" country. Rich countries need to recognize these benefits and do more to assist poor ones by investing and developing economies of the third world. That in turn will make emigration less desirable while at the same time prove economically beneficial to rich countries which will have new markets for their products.

Countries with similar economies which share a border, as is the case with Canada and the US, do not have problems with illegal immigration. The same happens between comparably rich countries in Europe.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Dick Gephardt proposed the implementation of a world minimum wage. The plan would not end illegal immigration but strikes at the heart of the problem. Is the World Trade Organization listening?

Domenico Maceri ([email protected]), Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers and some have won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.

 

 

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