HALL COLUMN: Economic freedom and immigration

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Economic freedom has been the overriding pursuit of peoples who have come to this nation to make it their own.

As we celebrate our independence as a nation, we easily remember that our forefathers &8212; the patriots who fought for our sovereignty &8212; did so because of unfair economic burdens placed on them by Britain.

This does not in any way lessen the majesty of our nation. We have always been a nation that seeks to free people from injustice, whether it be social, economic or religious. In the case of our founding, we can find a little of each.

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For certain, some who came to the colonies came to flee the rule of the Catholic church. They were protestants seeking freedom from an imposed doctrine that ran counter to their own.

Our founding fathers were mostly God-fearing men who valued their faith, and so it was their own life experiences that led them to ensure this would never be a nation that imposed upon its people a religious doctrine. They believed in freedom of religion to such an extent that they prohibited the government taking a role in it, regardless of the ruling party&8217;s faith &8212; Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, agnostic or otherwise.

Likewise, it was in America where the ruling middle class was born, its power fostered and furthered by the ideas and works of people like Benjamin Franklin. The influence of such people sought to limit the absolute power of the upper class. It was an attempt at social equality across economic lines, a direct rebuke of the society fostered under British rule.

But each of these two examples are secondary to the founding of our nation. When Christopher Columbus set sail, he had no grand plan to discover a land that one day would be colonized by people whose fate would lead them to declaring independence for what would become the strongest nation in the world.

Instead, he sought the fortunes of discovery &8212; new lands, business opportunities and wealth. His commission was the same as many other explorers of the time: governship over lands discovered and economic incentives tied with any ventures started in these lands.

Of course, not everyone has come to this country of their own free will. The slave trade &8212; which many people forget began well before the 19th century or even the founding of our nation &8212; was expanded for economic gain. Landowners and businessmen needed workers, and rather than &8220;lease&8221; (that would be paying someone a wage), they found it more cost effective to &8220;own&8221;.

When you put today&8217;s immigration debate in the light of our nation&8217;s history, you&8217;ll see nothing unique about it. Hispanics &8212; predominantly &8212; are coming to the United States because they can find work with better pay and better conditions than what they find in their home nation.

They come, yes, for a better life. But make no bones about it, they come for the economic opportunities.

And while we&8217;re talking about economic opportunities, let&8217;s not forget from where these economic opportunities come: corporate America.

If you go down to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, contractors are employing thousands of immigrant laborers. During legislative testimonies in 2006, it was estimated that as many as 60 percent of the immigrant labor force on the coast was here illegally. (That number is probably closer to 70 or 80 percent.)

Why? Because Hurricane Katrina wiped the area out, and rebuilding it required a much larger labor force than contractors could find. (That, and immigrant labor is cheaper than unionized labor, which likes to demand silly things such as benefits and regulated safety standards.)

Even in situations not as grave as the aftermath of Katrina, corporate America often finds it difficult to fulfill jobs that require &8220;demeaning&8221; work for low wages. For instance, do you think a lot of Americans are jumping at the chance to pluck feathers and process chickens? You think a paper company has an &8220;interesting&8221; smell? You&8217;ve not smelled anything until you&8217;ve sucked in the odor of a poultry plant on a hot July day.

The immigrant workers (legal or illegal), however, don&8217;t have the same work expectations or preconceptions. The work may be dirty and hard, but its better than the opportunities afforded them at home. And minimum wage goes a long way in a communal setting here and even further with their families back home.

My point? America was founded by enterprising people who believed in capitalism and freedom &8212; freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise and freedom of social choices.

Our freedom makes our choices hard. The free-enterprise system has led us into some pretty dark times (i.e. the Civil War). Likewise, it has made us the richest nation in the world, one that provides assistance to struggling nations and is a refuge for people searching for a better way of life.

Today, it has led us to the immigration debate. Just like at any other point in our time, some use this debate solely for political purposes. Others, however, seek real solutions to real problems.

Those who see only political opportunity, use scare tactics about terrorists sneaking over the Mexican border or immigrants bringing in grave diseases to our nation.

But those who are looking at how to solve this problem, know that our economy depends greatly on immigrant workers. They know that finding ways to grant them citizenship and assimilate them into our society is necessary.

Today, as we celebrate our independence and all that is right with our nation, we should keep in mind that our freedom &8212; regardless of how difficult it may be &8212; is what makes us great. If we were not this kind of country, then we would not be faced with an immigration problem.

It&8217;s a problem worth having &8212; and solving.

Sam R. Hall is publisher of The Times. He can be reached by e-mail to sam.hall@demopolistimes.com.