Douglas Cohn: No winners in overt covert economy

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WASHINGTON — The consequences of congressional inaction on immigration reform are many, and it’s time to ask who benefits from the refusal of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to bring a bill to the House floor for a vote. There are the politics, of course. Tea Party Republicans are adamantly against a comprehensive immigration bill, and Boehner doesn’t want to do anything to upset the Republican base in the months leading up to the November midterm elections.

But the rest of us must shoulder some blame, too, in accepting a situation that has gone on far too long. Illegal immigrants work for low wages, have no rights, and a lot of people throughout the economy benefit from that imbalance.

Look around you and you’ll notice that the majority of folks doing menial, often backbreaking jobs, are Hispanic. They pick crops, mow lawns, build fences and houses, lay brick and raise our children. Some could be in this country legally, but those who are doing the hiring typically don’t ask.

The way this works in a state like Virginia, where there are no onerous statewide anti-immigration laws, people without documents have some freedom of movement without fear of harassment. Immigrants seeking work can generally be found around a Home Depot that suburban homeowners frequent, or a 7-11 where they can buy a cup of coffee or a soft drink and linger until they connect with someone who needs a day laborer.

In one such spot, a police car is parked right there keeping a watchful eye to make sure nothing gets out of hand. But there’s no real threat of arrest.

This is the economy that everybody turns a blind eye to. They call it the underground economy, but it is right out in the open for anyone who bothers to notice.

In this particular example, there’s even a major federal building nearby, a testament of sorts to the status quo.

The only people hurt in this exchange are the workers. They have no rights. They have no benefits.

They’re not eligible for unemployment insurance.

They have no recourse against an unscrupulous employer. They can’t sue for back pay, or unpaid wages.

They’re performing services that everybody wants, and yet they are the scapegoats in the current debate over the Central American migrant children. Localities around the country are rising up to say they don’t want to temporarily house any of the unaccompanied migrant children. Those objecting should look around and see who’s mowing their lawns and caring for their children.

In the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney talked about “self-deportation,” a term many people found not only unrealistic, but offensive. The truth is that no one wants to disrupt an economy built on the backs of illegal migrants, whether they’re picking crops in California or building houses in Virginia.

President Bush tried along with U.S. Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., to push through reform when he was in the White House, but he couldn’t get Republicans to support him. Now President Obama is being stymied by House Republicans more than a year after the Senate passed a bipartisan reform bill with 68 votes.

The Senate bill was “scored” by the Congressional Budget office and found to reduce the budget deficit by $197 billion over the next 10 years, presumably by boosting and regularizing this underground economy. The population would officially increase according to the CBO by 10.4 million, and all those folks hanging around Home Depot and 7-11 would have other options to secure work.

There are other forces at play, a fear among some that the diversity in America is moving too quickly, and holding the line on immigration will somehow slow this inevitable change.

A country that gives lip service to the mantra, equal pay for equal work, cannot continue to carve out huge swaths of workers for unequal treatment without violating the democratic principles of which we are so rightly proud.