Okay, let’s not be hasty. The New York Times Diner’s Journal asks the question, invoking the images of the 2004 film “A Day Without a Mexican,” in which all of California’s Mexicans suddenly disappear and the state is thrust into a world with far fewer gardeners, nannies, fruit-pickers, maids, cooks, and dishwashers. The film is the high-water mark of the essentially unethical rationalization for illegal immigration that is one of the main culprits for America’s unconscionable tolerance of it—that without illegals, the economy and quality of life of Americans would break down.
That the argument makes any sense at all is really a strong reason to stop illegal immigration, because it shows what happens when illegal and unethical practices becomes so entrenched that they warp the institutions, systems and cultural norms they affect, and corrupt the citizens who take advantage of them. For decades, one of the chief arguments against eliminating slavery was that it would cripple the economy of the South: the 1848 documentary “A World Without Slaves” would have probably been very similar to the 2004 film, but grainier. Giving equal rights to women has devastated the quality of public schools, put men out of work, forced kids to grow up under the care of strangers, and made men to do a heck of a lot more housework. Well, too bad: it was still the right thing to do. The business practices and bureaucracies of many nations depend on bribery, and bribery advocates could truthfully argue that making bribery illegal would cause serious disruptions in the economies and political processes of those nations. Naturally; when you get used to an illegal or unethical short cut and they erect a wall to keep you out, you have to find another way, and until that becomes institutionalized, the change is inconvenient, disruptive, and probably expensive.
So if restaurants stopped exploiting illegal immigrants while encouraging dishonest conduct and warping national immigration and security policies for their own profit [this is called “framing the argument” in law school, I recall], the same would be true. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that illegal immigrants make up about 20% of the nation’s chefs, head cooks and cooks, and 28% of its dishwashers. Assuming that the establishments would have to pay fair rather than exploitive wages to America citizens, sure: it will cost more. “At the end of the day, the customer is going to end up paying for it,” a chef and restaurateur told Diner’s Journal. “We’ll have to pay higher wages, more taxes and then we will have to charge more.”
Cry me a river. The fair price of a commodity or service is made up of the fair cost of its components. Yup: a used car dealer whose cars are stolen will be able to sell his cars dirt cheap. Is that an argument for allowing theft? Before actors and musicians had unions, Broadway tickets were affordable by the average baker or candlestick maker—should we ban unions in the interest of cheaper culture? What about safety regulations and environmental regulations—we can lower the costs of food, travel and energy by letting companies break these laws, too. Laws and regulations are in place for a reason, and that reason is the general welfare of the nation’s legal citizens. There are laws requiring legal procedures in immigration because of vital and undeniable social, economic, demographic, health, national security, labor, social service, educational, entitlement and law enforcement considerations. My message to the restaurateur: your problems and the price of a steak do not stand up against all of this, not by a long-shot.
Chris MacDonald, on his excellent Business Ethics Blog, has a bit more sympathy for the pro-exploitation/ law-breaking side. He writes,
“…if restaurants stopped hiring illegal immigrants, it would obviously be bad for those illegal immigrants; and it would be good for whomever got those jobs instead. In terms of total numbers, this is very nearly a zero-sum game, except for the possibility that fewer people over all would be hired at the higher, legal wage. But illegals are arguably in greater need of the jobs (since fewer kinds of jobs are even possible for them, and because they don’t have the same access to the social security safety net that citizens have access to). So, thinking purely in terms of the duty to help people when you can do so, it might even be argued that restaurants have an obligation to hire illegals.”
Whoa…back up, Chris! It’s not a “zero-sum game,” or even nearly one, according to my calculations. The restaurants have no more duty to give jobs to illegal immigrants than they have an obligation to import the Hungarian homeless to fill those jobs. Firing 1,000 illegal immigrants, and thus creating less incentive for other illegals to follow them as well as giving those already here a good reason to go home, does not counter-balance the 1000 Americans who get their jobs. They don’t counter-balance 500 Americans or 100 Americans or even one. One American who has a job is a net gain of one law-abiding citizen who should not be out of work because of an industry’s greedy exploitation of people who have no right to be here, even if that one lucky American’s job requires all 12 million illegal immigrants to lose theirs.
Dr. MacDonald doesn’t actually make the obligation argument or subscribe to it. Still, the argument is invalid. There is no ethical argument for allowing restaurants to aid and abet illegal immigration.
So: are restaurants that hire illegal immigrants ethical?