Our Underground Economy
On Tuesday of this week, I received an email from Enterprise Rent-A-Car entirely in Spanish. This was followed by a second email (en inglés esta vez) which apologized for the previous email and offered me a 15% discount on my next rental. As nice as it is to receive a discount on an expensive service, these emails raise two questions: why is Enterprise sending emails in Spanish to its customers, and why the apology and discount offer?
The answer to the first question is that the emails are almost certainly an attempt to target the immigrants of Hispanic descent, both legal and illegal.
The answer to the second question is harder to pin down, but it is most likely linked to the frustration many Americans feel about the growing problem of illegal immigration. Whenever there is widespread public frustration or anger, it can usually be attributed to a need that is not being met or a problem that demands a solution. A useful formula to describe such situations might be: general public awareness of problem + lack of action by leaders = frustration and anxiety.
Spanish-language emails are not directly linked to the issue of illegal immigration, but much like the automated telephone help lines that instruct callers to “apriete uno para español or press 2 for English,” the irritation they stoke hints at a larger problem-our immigration problem. Not only are we failing to effectively assimilate our legal immigrants (Pew notes that about half of first-generation Hispanic immigrants speak little or no English), but we still have yet to address our growing illegal problem.
If popular discontent is one manifestation of a societal need that goes unmet, another phenomenon to watch for is an attempt by our economic system to fill the gap that our political and legal systems have neglected. Unfortunately, this carries its own set of problems. Proponents of border control would agree that fences make good neighbors; laws and restrictions are needed to protect the security and livelihoods of citizens. In the same way, healthy capitalism requires ground rules in order to truly thrive. For this reason, purely economic attempts to reconcile a deficit of rules are rarely successful.
Examples of such attempts include the willingness of businesses to turn a blind eye to the legal (or illegal) status of their employees, and the effort companies have recently made to attract the business of illegal consumers; the availability of credit cards and bank accounts regardless of citizenship, Spanish-language telephone tech support, and email offers in Spanish. These attempts to integrate our illegal population into our economy without first integrating them into our legal system have created a de facto underground economy.
While it is true that underground economies are usually response by market forces to a genuine, unmet need, such as in the case of the former Soviet Union, it is also worth noting that their relationship with host economies is less symbiotic than it is parasitic. Illegal immigrants will become more enmeshed in our economy the longer our leaders refrain from addressing the underlying problem.
Until our lawmakers craft a solution for shutting off the flow of illegal immigrants and effectively assimilating legal immigrants, Americans will continue to express frustration with Spanish-language emails and automated phone calls instructing them to “press for English.”