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Immigration reform and the rescue of America's laborers

The political wisdom of today declares that the middle class must be rescued, but it's the lower class that is the most endangered segment of America. The working poor are squeezed between pressure from illegal labor and a stagnant economy. The health of this segment of our citizenry is essential to the restoration and maintenance of our national health.

Indeed, history demonstrates that a society dependent upon surrogate labor is a society in decay. Given all the attention paid these days to Civil War anniversaries, the Antebellum South provides an example worth revisiting.

In 1857, a book titled "The Impending Crisis of the South" was published. The author was a North Carolinian named Hinton Helper. A blockbuster in its day, it presented data shredding the argument that the South needed slavery to survive. He argued that slavery was both morally depraved and economically destructive: "The causes which have impeded the progress and prosperity of The South, which have dwindled our commerce, and other similar pursuits, into the most contemptible insignificance; sunk a large majority of our people in galling poverty and ignorance, entailed upon us a humiliating dependence on the Free States; may all be traced to one common source, Slavery." The slaveholder was the only Southern beneficiary of slavery. The majority of the South's population suffered from the institution's depression of free-citizen wages.

Today, illegal labor has a similar effect. Slavery suffocated free labor then; illegal labor undermines citizen labor now.

A man by the name of Lincoln was also interested in labor issues. In 1859, he delivered a speech that included this: "They hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that in fact capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed; that labor can exist without capital, but that capital cannot exist without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior — greatly the superior of capital." The "they" to whom Abe refers are the free labor supporters. Their opponents "assume that labor is available only in connection with capital — that nobody labors, unless somebody else owning capital, somehow, by the use of it, induces him to do it." This, he said, was called the "mudsill" theory. Abe went on to dismantle that theory piece by piece.

The "Rail Splitter" epithet that Lincoln held was not the stuff of myth. Abe split many a rail. He held labor and laborers in high regard. Were he with us now, he would give those extolling the "job creator" argument the same treatment he gave the "mudsillers."

I have been in the construction business for 30 years. I have received wages as a carpenter and paid wages as a business owner. Illegal workers depress wages. Those who hire them take advantage of a virtual "no ask, no tell" environment. The net result is less work and lower wages for citizens.

The bipartisan immigration law supported by President George W. Bush in 2007 can provide a reasonable premise for reform. The "Z" visas proposed therein could have helped stabilize the chaotic state of labor that continues to plague all workers, citizen and noncitizen alike. We need neither discriminate nor recriminate. What we need are rules. With visas, illegal workers can come out of the closet. The labor black market will disappear. Yes, those newly legalized workers will demand higher wages — but that will relieve the current depression of citizen wages.

With the additional advantage citizens will derive from the implementation of Obamacare, the viability of the working poor will return. Some deride the effort within Obamacare to help workers afford health coverage as a "subsidy," but we subsidize farmers through payments and manufacturers via tariffs; why is it inappropriate to subsidize our working poor with an essential benefit?

Laborers are not "mudsills"; they are not a commodity to be valued and traded. The working men and women at the ground level of America's economic scale are to our nation as a foundation is to its superstructure. A foundation built on poor soil sinks; then it cracks; finally, it collapses. In the early stage there are remedies; later, there are not. If we continue upon our present trajectory — continue to allow the weakening of our substructure — the soaring edifice that is America may one day become compromised beyond repair.

Mark Morrill is a self-employed carpenter living in northern Baltimore County. His email is msheldonmorrill@aol.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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