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Reparations for Undocumented Workers


Greg Grandin calls for a moral movement equivalent to abolitionism in favor of undocumented immigrants. He then makes the case for reparations for undocumented workers.

What’s missing from the calculations is the value that their labor contributes to the US economy, a good part of which is uncompensated. I asked Suresh Naidu, an economist at Columbia University, how one might tally the difference between what undocumented Central American and Mexican workers get paid and what they would get paid if they enjoyed full equality of rights. Using the wage penalty undocumented migrants face as a benchmark (which is a lower end, given that extensive undocumented participation might lower sectoral wages for everyone), here are the steps he laid out:

1. Find the aggregate undocumented wages paid in the major sectors where undocumented workers are employed, in agriculture, construction, domestic.

2. Figure out how much their wages were depressed as a result of being undocumented. One way of doing this is to look at Reagan’s 1986 reform. Rough estimates suggest that undocumented worker wages are between 6 and 24 percent lower than they would be otherwise. In other words, if we take these figures as a baseline, that means undocumented workers would be getting paid 6 and 24 percent more than they are if they were documented—that differential is either captured as profit by their employers or passed on to consumers as savings.

3. Cumulate that percentage (that is, how much wages are depressed as a result of being undocumented) of aggregate wages over the number of years that undocumented workers are in the United States.

4. Voilà, that would be your reparations bill.

A Pew survey from 2009 gives that median income for migrant workers as $36,000 dollars. With 11 million undocumented migrants, 8.3 million of them in the work force for an average duration of fourteen years, and adjusting for inflation, Naidu came up with between $22,000 (based on the lower percentage of depressed wages and inflation) and $101,000 (the higher percentage) owed to each undocumented resident.

I don’t disagree but I think a more straightforward if limited reparations bill would be to refund the taxes of these people for services they cannot use. While under-the-table work obviously goes on, the sizable majority of the work done by undocumented people is taxed. Under the current system, they won’t see that Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid or many other social services they are paying for. When anti-immigrant people say they at least want to see immigrants made to pay a fine for crossing without documentation, my head explodes because they are paying that fine with every paycheck. Meanwhile, we eat lettuce in January that costs almost nothing because labor costs are so low thanks to the exploitation of these very people we want to punish.

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