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Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, says an overlooked complexity of the immigration issue is that one worker's leaving doesn't necessarily equal one job free for an American. "For every job that comes into an economy or leaves, there is a part of another job that comes or leaves with it," he says. In other words, if Salvador and his father-in-law leave, it isn't just the bank that would see its revenues go down. So would the Safeway down the street from their house and the Ace store where they buy spark plugs for their car and hardware for their home. These may be slight hits, but businesses are working on rail-thin margins, and even small reductions in revenues could result in the loss of hours or an entire job for someone else an American worker. It's a reminder that in St. Helens as elsewhere, undocumented workers, whose numbers grew wildly during the boom years, were an integral part of the growing economy. (See pictures of Mexico's drug wars.)
Papademetriou also argues that undocumented workers will play a role in getting the economy on its feet again. They represent, he says, exactly the kind of workforce that employers will turn to at the first blush of recovery. "If you're going to ramp business up quickly, where are you going to get the workers?" he says. Businesses may have new orders coming in, but they're not going to hire permanent workers until they're sure the recession is over.
Choosing to Stay
All this could be putting St. Helens at a competitive disadvantage to other towns in neighboring counties. Because the choice facing Margarito in the absence of a federal plan on immigration, it turns out, isn't St. Helens vs. Mexico but St. Helens vs. Woodburn, a heavily Hispanic town 60 miles (about 100 km) south with businesses that are still hiring (including at least one firm that just relocated from St. Helens).
Margarito and his wife would not have chosen to go back to Mexico anyway. Margarito's 8-year-old son, one of four U.S.-born children, is autistic. They've tried to find a program in Mexico that would work for him. There was a trip to Puerto Vallarta for dolphin therapy, which yielded little. They went to Morelia the hometown of Margarito's wife and found that the public schools would offer him only one hour of special education every three days, compared with 24 hours each week in St. Helens. All of which they could handle in the short term if it meant waiting out the recession in Mexico and returning to the U.S. when jobs were available again.
But they have no such guarantees. So Margarito and his wife will stay in Oregon, but not in St. Helens. One of the couple's last paid assignments in the town was a typical task for people who have been made unemployable by 5-190: a store manager hired them and a friend to clean out the back of the store overnight. "It was disgusting work," says Margarito. At the end of the five-hour job, they were given $60 total, or about $4 an hour for each worker. Margarito cajoled $20 more out of the boss for the three to split, but it's clear to him that he can't raise a family by working in St. Helens anymore.
Over drinks at El Tapatio, a half-empty restaurant near the highway, Margarito, his wife and uncle talked about the financial crisis how Wall Street had binged on mortgages while Washington looked the other way. The parallels to immigration were pointed: during the boom years, the U.S. binged on cheap labor while politicians neither legalized workers nor prevented them from sneaking across the border. It was a grossly laissez-faire policy that has left everyone Americans and immigrants alike with a postboom hangover.
As tempting as it is in places like St. Helens to try to send the illegal immigrants packing, it would be a bit like letting AIG or GM collapse: it might feel good and it might be morally justified, but in the long run it would just increase the misery on Main Street. Like it or not, with more than 10 million Margaritos from coast to coast, illegal America is simply too big to fail.