This post brings new meaning to the phrase ‘reading the tea leaves’.
Watching my tea diffuse recently, I got to thinking about how humans diffuse around the globe like tea particulates in a teacup. Some migrate intentionally, others are forced, and some are lured across borders — as if by osmosis, like tea through a strainer.
It’s tea time somewhere in the world, so grab a cup and let’s go…
DRINKING DYNAMICS AND HUMAN DIFFUSION
I’m a tea drinker. I relish the ritual of tea-making, watching the clear water transform in hue, be it the gentle embrace of green tea or the profound depths of black. Hydrogen and its oxygen friends, in a fervent state, eagerly extract molecules from the tea elements, diffusing them throughout the cup until a balance or 'teaquilibrium' is reached.
However, this seemingly simple diffusion reflects deeper laws of thermodynamics; it's not merely turning twigs into tea. This transformation is part of a grander system — from the tea leaf's growth in specific conditions, its journey through processing, to ultimately gracing my cup. The tea species' continued evolutionary existence and popularity can be attributed to its taste, aroma, and color. So much so that the fragile leaf bears historical weight — wars have been waged for such traits.
Whether in a teacup, an ecosystem, or an economy, these processes reveal a system's tendency towards certain outcomes, showcasing nature's ceaseless drive for equilibrium and long-term persistence.
This parallels the evolution of humans and how they interact with people and place. Over millennia, humans have been driven to seek better environments, whether they offer more food, safety, or other resources. This behavior, while not consciously directed toward the grand "purpose" of the species, has clear benefits in terms of survival and reproductive success.
Kinetic agitation in the physical and social world is what lead humans to diffuse around the globe — to pass through permeable boundaries intent on achieving equilibrium and long-term persistence. And these days, the world is very agitated and humans are diffusing in record numbers.
Wars and political conflicts, combined with economic hardships, are driving global migrations, including South and Central Americans north to the U.S. border. Political repression and discrimination are pushing individuals to search for more tolerant societies. Environmental challenges, from droughts to rising sea levels, are displacing both intra and intercontinental populations, including inhabitants watching their Pacific Islands become submerged. By the end of 2022 108 million people were forcibly displaced — and growing. That’s up from 40 million in 2010.
But it’s not all crises driven. With some of the largest populations in the world rising out of poverty more and more migrate in search of better educational opportunities and the prospect of a brighter future.
When I was hiring at Microsoft in the early 1990s, the U.S. government was issuing many more work visas than today. The increasing interconnectedness of the world, through technology and transportation, allowed me to hire skilled professionals from other nations. Today people are on massive waitlists hoping to migrate to tech hubs in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Which can be cruel. Some are heavily recruited, offered jobs, and then forced to live in precarity; putting their lives on hold, they wait as the visa lottery unfolds.
But many of those making their way to the U.S. border aren’t being recruited. Not directly anyway. They’re being drawn, through a semi-permeable legal membrane called a border, from areas of low job concentration to high. Agitated by a variety of circumstances, they seek goals and equilibrium in their lives in a quest to persist.
CAPITALISM, MIGRATION, AND THE OSMOSIS OF LABOR
Companies and corporations are also goal seeking. They seek to maximize profits. Just as cells have evolved mechanisms for osmotic balance, capitalism has evolved to maximize capital accumulation. And low-wage migrant workers have evolved as a mechanism to achieve this goal.
Daniel Costa is the Director of Immigration Law and Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute. In September of 2023 he testified in front of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions on the ‘The Impact of Biden’s Open Border on the American Workforce’.
“Without immigrant workers, many sectors of the economy would cease to function adequately—whether it be the construction of buildings, crop production, or information technology services.”1
And according to the Immigration Research Initiative, the range of jobs is wide:
“the majority of immigrants are in middle- or upper-wage jobs—with 48% employed in middle-wage jobs, earning more than 2/3 of median earnings for fulltime workers (or $35,000 per year) and 17% are in upper-wage jobs, earning more than double the median.”
“immigrants are ‘disproportionately likely to be in low-wage jobs. In all, 35 percent of immigrants are in jobs paying under $35,000, compared to 26 percent of U.S.-born workers.”
As throughout the history of the United States, America runs on immigrants. Even, or at times, especially, undocumented workers. Estimated at just 5% of the overall labor market, a 2017 report from the Institute on Taxation and Public Policy states
“undocumented immigrants contribute significantly to state and local taxes, collectively paying an estimated $11.74 billion a year.”2 In California alone, there are an estimated three million undocumented workers accounting for $3.1 billion in state and local taxes.
“immigrants nationwide pay on average an estimated 8 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes (this is their effective state and local tax rate). To put this in perspective, the top 1 percent of taxpayers pay an average nationwide effective tax rate of just 5.4 percent.”
Despite the contributions of nearly eight million undocumented workers, they have no legal status making them ripe for exploitation by employers. And should these workers complain about unfair or unsafe working conditions or unpaid wages, they risk retaliation and deportation.
A 2009 survey of 4300 undocumented workers revealed 37% were illegally paid below minimum wage compared to 16% of U.S.-born workers. And nearly 90% of them said they were not paid overtime wages — a crime that would likely trigger litigation by U.S.-born workers.3
One of the primary legal avenues for migrants seeking work in the U.S. is through temporary "nonimmigrant" visas. In 2019, over 2 million migrant workers, representing about 1% of the labor force, were in the U.S. under such programs.4 Despite their legal status, these workers are highly vulnerable to exploitation, often burdened by illegal recruitment fees that lead to debt bondage. Upon arrival, many find the promised job non-existent, and some even fall victim to human trafficking, including forced involvement in the sex industry.
STEEPING IN THE OSMOTIC TENSION OF CAPITALISM AND MIGRATION
Meanwhile, there are companies across the nation calling on Biden and Congress to fast-track legal authorization of immigrant workers. Just last month, 100 New York CEOs signed an open letter to Biden calling on him to act, stating there is
“a compelling need for expedited processing of asylum applications and work permits for those who meet federal eligibility standards.”5
This summer politicians in several states were also calling for the same to fill jobs.
Meanwhile, congress would rather ‘build the wall’. They’ve allocated funding for immigration enforcement at a rate eight times greater than immigration court adjudications and asylum and refugee activities. $37 billion is directed towards Border Patrol and ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations, compared to $3.5 billion for immigration courts and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate.
This only leads to more procedural lags that inadvertently promote workplace exploitation, leading to issues like the rise of illicit child labor. Immigrant children don’t choose to work for little to no wages, the uncaring U.S. economic system draws them in — like hot water drawing molecules from a tea leaf.
Some say the United States is ‘swamped’ and can’t accommodate immigrants. And yet Costa Rica has taken in over 270,000 forcibly displaced migrants accounting for 5% of their tiny, and relatively poor, country. Columbia has absorbed two million Venezuelans providing them legal status and a right to remain there for ten years.
I think the immigrant situation in America and the exploitation of the disadvantaged, a hallmark and remnant of the slavery that is the foundation of this country, puts migration and cruel capitalism at a crossroads. The osmotic pull of the capitalist market is triggered by profit seeking maximization that draws vulnerable populations into exploitive roles.
And we consumers are complicit. We have our own selfish maximizing intentions, like seeking and demanding the lowest price. The collective behavior of consumers shapes this market, leading to emergent outcomes like the exploitation of vulnerable populations.
I think about that as I sip my tea. A product most likely grown and processed in unfavorable labor conditions filled with complications and contradictions. All to allow tea-making to be a simple and affordable act. One that also demonstrates an interplay of various forces and principles, from the immediate diffusion of flavor to the broader forces of evolutionary biology and even economics.
These processes exemplify how systems, whether a cup of tea, an ecosystem, or an economy gravitate towards certain outcomes. Whether the actors in these systems act with intentionality or not, the drive towards these outcomes is unmistakable. As we witness people struggling to diffuse through membranes into or within countries, agitated by natural, political, social, or economic forces, I think about their immediate quest for equilibrium and their longer-term quest for persistence.
And then I think about myself and my oxygen counterparts, molecules of the warm clear water, how much are we helping to create this osmotic tension? I fully recognize I am a participant in a form of cruel capitalism that has its own immediate quest for profit maximization and long-term persistence. I too am seeking equilibrium and a longer-term persistence. And it seems for now, in the U.S. anyway, that means more cruel capitalism as both political parties are swayed by this brand of capitalism —intent on maintaining their own equilibrium in their own longer-term quest for persistence.
Testimony prepared for the U.S. House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions for a hearing on ‘The Impact of Biden’s Open Border on the American Workforce’. Economic Policy Institute. Daniel Costa. 2023.
Undocumented Immigrants’ State & Local Tax Contributions. Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. 2017.
Open Letter to the President & Congressional Leaders from Concerned Business Leaders Regarding the Asylum-Seekers Humanitarian Crisis. Partnership for New York City. 2023.