The trouble with freedom is all those alien workers coming here

March 11, 1997|By Richard Reeves

JAKARTA -- More than 200 Chinese refugees in leaky fishing boats found safety early last month on the beaches of one of Indonesia's more than 17,000 islands. They were not wanted here. Local authorities allowed the refugees to patch their craft, gave them some rice, and pushed them off, pointing in the general direction of New Zealand.

At the same time, the government of Indonesia was, officially and unofficially, pressing Malaysia to accept hundreds of thousands of undocumented Indonesians illegally working or looking for work in Malaysia's Sabah Province in Borneo, an island divided between those two countries and the Sultanate of Brunei.

On April 1, Malaysia intends to implement a ''regularization scheme'' that would expel all illegal aliens in Sabah -- except for Indonesians and Filipinos. Under the Malay regularization, the workers from Indonesia and the Philippines will be allowed to stay in Sabah legally if they register and have a job by June 1.

That scheming should not be confused with tolerance toward Indonesian immigrants. Malaysia, with an economy rapidly emerging from the time when it provided cheap offshore labor for Japanese and South Korean manufacturers, needs foreign workers right now (as the United States needs Mexican workers in certain places and at certain times), and it always needs good relations with Indonesia, a poorer country with 10 times its population.

In fact, far to the north, Malaysia has just completed two concrete walls, topped with barbed wire and patrolled by soldiers, along its border with Thailand. The purpose is exactly the same as the walls along the borders between Mexico and California and Texas: to stop the smuggling of both workers and goods into the richer country.

It is the same everywhere there are borders between poor countries and richer ones. With all the trumpeting of the triumph of capitalism, of free markets, of global markets and open borders, richer countries -- from Saudi Arabia to France and Sweden, from Argentina to Venezuela to Canada -- want enough cheap foreign labor to do the dirty work of the pleasant life with as little cost and inconvenience as possible.

In the best of all possible worlds and schemes, the foreigners politely go back where they came from when they are no longer needed. That was what West Germany had in mind when it offered to pay Turkish workers, many of whom had been recruited by German companies, to just go away when they were no longer essential.

In other words, rich countries, led by the United States, are pledged to free markets in everything but labor. The idea behind the global economy is that you can sell your apples anywhere, particularly when they're cheap, but you can sell your labor only when and where it is needed. Anything else is ''illegal.''

Focus on refugees

''Illegal immigration'' is more often than not a local or narrowly focused issue, rising and falling with regional or national economies. Americans focus on Mexicans. The French focus on North Africans. Business focuses on economic immigrants or migrants, ready and eager to fill permanent or temporary labor gaps -- or to do anything at all cheaper than local residents. National governments try to limit their focus to political refugees, folks who would be killed, jailed or otherwise persecuted back home.

But one man's political refugee is another man's terrorist. Using the United States in recent decades as an example, ''political'' was a euphemism for ''anti-communist.'' A refugee escaping poverty and oppression in Sandinista Nicaragua was legal, even a hero. One fleeing oppression and poverty in El Salvador was illegal.

In truth, almost all migration, permanent or transitory, is economic. In a country such as Indonesia, remittances -- money sent or brought home by documented or undocumented workers abroad -- are a critical factor in the national economy. (The same is true in dozens of other countries, including Mexico, Greece, Hungary, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bolivia and even Ireland.)

Here is the lead of a recent story on the business page of the Jakarta Post: ''Minister of Finance Mar'ie Muhammad has projected that Indonesia will rake in $8.6 billion (U.S.) in foreign exchange from the service sector next fiscal year, mostly from tourism, air freight and workers' remittances.'' He estimated the take from workers abroad, principally in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, at $871 million.

That means, too, that it is a critical factor in global stability; illegal immigration, permanent or temporary, is a grumpy foreign-aid substitute, a way of buying peace and quiet in the global market.

Back home in New York, I will walk down the street in the predawn morning and buy my daily $3.15 ration of newspapers from a Pakistani who keeps his shop open around the clock. We may speak of Benazir Bhutto or of Ramadan, and he will explain the conversation in Urdu to a ''brother-in-law'' who arrived last week. Half the profit from our transaction will end up in Rawalpindi.

Without these guys, there might be no transaction, because if the store opened later -- as it used to under American ownership -- I might be too preoccupied with other things to do more than glance at a paper.

And it would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that these Pakistanis are here forever. Probably half or more will go back to Pakistan if they can make a living there -- as did half the Italians who migrated to the United States early in this century. More than 60 percent of the immigrants to Southern California from western Mexico, legal and illegal, return home within a year, according to a new study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

That is the way of a world more free than it has ever been. As Ronald Reagan liked to say, people vote with their feet. And if you want free markets, walls and governments can't stop them.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/11/97

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