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Foreign Workers are Good for America

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The U.S. Labor Department says the program that allows foreigners to work in this country is a “sham” because it fails to protect American workers’ jobs and wages. Under the program, thousands of noncitizens work in the United States. But those workers are supposed to have “unique” skills that employers cannot find in native workers.

The Inspector General of the Labor Department recently audited the program and found that, contrary to the law, employers don’t really look for Americans to fill the jobs and don’t pay prevailing wages. Apparently, the employers wanted the foreign workers even if they could find American substitutes and were able to negotiate mutually satisfactory labor terms with them. We know that because the workers accepted the jobs.

That, in the judgment of the Inspector General, makes the program a sham. I’ve got a better word for the program: mistake. It ought to be repealed so that we once again can have a free labor market.

Think about what happens when an American employer hires a foreign worker. First, the employer is happy because he’s got a worker he values. If he didn’t value the worker, the employer wouldn’t have hired him. Second, the worker is happy because he has the best available job of which he is aware. We can be certain of that. All voluntary exchange benefits the people involved.

But what about the American that might have gotten that job? Hasn’t the foreigner taken it? Undoubtedly, foreigners often get jobs that native Americans might like. But whenever an American gets a job, he also disappoints a fellow American who would have taken the job. That’s life. Why is the case different when the winner is a citizen of another country?

That question is at the crux of the issue. In this country, we pay heavy lip service to the notion of universal human rights. This country was founded on the idea that we have rights because we’re human, not because we were born at a particular location on the planet. Our founding philosophy undercuts the Labor Department’s position that Americans have first claim to jobs in the United States and that employers may hire foreigners only when they can’t find suitable Americans. If natives have a right by virtue of their humanity to accept offers from prospective employers, then so do foreign-born people.

Look at it this way: by what right does the Labor Department step between an American employer and a foreign-born person to thwart their work agreement?

What gets overlooked is that such restrictions also violate the rights of Americans. Which Americans? American employers, of course. The restrictions harass peaceful American employers who are merely trying to hire the best people at the most advantageous wages. Why is that peaceful, productive activity burdened by government?

The standard response is that Americans either lose jobs or have their wages depressed. That seems to be true–only if you look at immediate, short-term effects. There is much more to the story. Foreign workers are talented. High-tech industries couldn’t get by without them. Foreign workers raise the living standards of all Americans. Foreign workers also buy things. Their demand for products and services creates jobs. And when foreigners start businesses, they also create jobs.

We must get over the fallacy that an economy can support only a fixed number of jobs. As long as we live, our desire for things is unlimited. The more efficient we become at production, the more things–and jobs–we can produce. We are in no danger of running out of work to do. It seems so only because the government’s regulatory and tax burden reduces investment.

Fear of foreign workers threatens our civil liberties. Members of Congress wish to set up a national registry for the purpose of authenticating prospective employees. Someone has quipped that before an employer can hire someone, he’ll first have to dial 1-800-BIG-BROTHER.

The Inspector General is right. The foreign-worker program is a sham. It cheats everyone, foreigners and Americans alike. It’s time to get rid of it.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.