The Need for Limits

I am married to an immigrant. I personally know how much work is required to keep such a family together in the United States. The process is difficult and intimidating and not everybody has access to the cultural and financial resources to make it through it. Sitting in immigration offices and watching things go badly for other couples is a frightening experience. On several occasions, my wife and I were questioned so fiercely it felt like a police interrogation. I know firsthand how important it is to learn to navigate the system and make sure you have crossed every “t” and dotted every “i.” But I can only imagine how crushing it must be to lose the person you love to deportation. My wife got to stay here. She followed the rules and now she is a US citizen. To be sure, my phenomenological experiences neither make me an expert on immigration nor grant me any dispensation to speak on the matter as if I were; however, as a sociologist with expertise in political economy, I am familiar with explanations of the dynamics – the push and pull factors – driving immigration and can speak about it with some authority. My training makes me sensitive to the social problems immigration brings.

These realities are pertinent: Immigration provides cheap labor for capitalists in labor-intensive industries (that includes modern agriculture); business firms have an incentive to keep borders open enough to allow sufficient numbers of migrant workers into the United States – and they have the political power to keep immigrants at a disadvantage in law and policy while they are there. It is the prospect of these jobs that draws migrants into the United States, primarily across the southern border. Cheap labor effects the wage and employment structure, keeping down wages and fracturing worker solidarity, thereby hampering the ability of workers to organize successfully around their collective interests, while making it difficult for legal workers to find employment in low-wage sectors. We see this, for example, in African Americans, who have historically performed low-skilled manufacturing, agricultural, and service sector work, being priced out of those markets. The passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, at which point only five percent of the population was foreign-born, saw the labor force participation rate for adult black men steadily decline; in 1973, the rate was 79 percent. Today, it is 68 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor, within less than a decade, if current trends prevail, it will fall to 61 percent. Harvard economist George Borjas found that one-third of the decline in employment among black male high school dropouts between 1980 and 2000 was attributable to immigration (see LA Times). The impact of illegal immigration on communities is a national phenomenon paid for at the local level in burdens imposed on school districts and neighborhoods, with overcrowding in classrooms and houses and apartments, a load that rests heavily on the shoulders of the citizens and residents who pay income, payroll, and property taxes. Moreover, the chances of millions of people who engage the immigration system legally are compromised by those who side-step that process and enter the country illegally. We are often told about the benefits of immigration. But to whom do these benefits accrue? For the most part, the wealthy Americans who employ immigrants and the immigrants themselves.

As a socialist, having elected to stand with the working class, I understand the concerns my brothers and sisters have about the impact immigration has on their communities and the importance of getting the politics right on this question. I believe in a borderless world, but not per se; my borderless world depends on what type of world that is. Is it a capitalist world or a socialist world we’re building? Is it a secular world, where religion is at best at the margins of culture and politics, or a world where religion is on the march? Nation-states have borders (you have no country without them), and as long as capitalists exploit human labor, and as long as there is religious fanaticism in the world, there is a need for immigration rules and enforcement to protect my work and my person. Perhaps nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Sweden’s experience with mass immigration – an explosion of criminal violence and cultural corrosion in a historically progressive, humanitarian, and orderly society that occurred because its political leaders opened the country to large numbers of immigrants, mostly Muslims from the Middle East, a culture very different from Sweden’s.

But there is also a political-strategic need for immigration control. Marx and Engels write in The Communist Manifesto that “working men have no country.” They explain:

Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word. National differences and antagonisms between peoples are vanishing gradually from day to day, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto. The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster. United action, of the leading civilized countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.

There is a causal order in the process of transformation: “In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.” Which is why they write, famously, “Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.”

When Marx and Engels talk about “nation” in the first instance they mean the population of a sovereign state. When they talk about it in the next instance they mean other nations, which includes communities of descent and language (the ethnic meaning of nation). The development of the proletarian struggle, when in command of political power, that is, having wrested control of the state from the bourgeoisie, begins the process of undoing the antagonisms between nations in the latter sense. Illegal immigration, and to some extent legal immigration, particularly in great numbers, is counterproductive to the proletarian struggle for the host countries as well the emigre because, on the one hand, it is disruptive to the process of organizing citizens for the political fight against the national bourgeoisie, while, on the other, it drains the emigre’s home nation of proletarians who could join the fight against their own national bourgeoisie. In other words, capitalism takes workers from the front lines in the struggle for socialism and pits them against other workers in other national contests to thwart the struggle for socialism. It is important to recognize in this regard that immigration is one side of capitalist globalization. Immigrants are enticed here because the purposes for which they are needed cannot be exported. Where work can be exported, capitalists seek cheap labor overseas, in export processing zones throughout the world (including Mexico). This is the other side. The working class is exploited wherever they are. Immigration is a tool of capitalist globalization. 

Although not a Marxist, Boston College political scientist Peter Skerry, in an op-ed for The Boston Globe, shines considerable light on the matter when he writes, “While liberals and progressives have stopped short of endorsing open borders, they’ve come to treat opposition to illegal immigration and constraints on illegal immigration as unacceptable, even racist.” He notes that, from a historical perspective, in relation to Trump’s position on immigration, “the Democrats’ new default position – that opposition to illegal immigration and constraints on legal immigration are virtually unacceptable – is just as extreme, certainly by historic standards.” Granted liberals, progressives, and Democrats are not socialists, but this fact only points out more clearly the problem of the left accepting the multicultural and open-borders mentality of the establishment “left” in America. It was not always so. Skerry writes, 

Within living memory, a powerful labor movement favored limits on immigration and fought against the reviled Bracero guest worker program, which began during World War II and was finally ended in 1964. At times, labor organizer Cesar Chavez supported the arrest and deportation of illegal farm workers. His union, whose members were predominantly of Mexican origin, viewed these interlopers from Mexico as strike-breakers and scabs.

As a child working in the California agricultural industry, Chavez came to understand why farmworkers suffered low wages and poor working conditions. His biographer Miriam Pawel quotes him as saying that “a surplus of labor enabled growers to treat workers as little more that interchangeable parts, cheaper and easier to replace than machines.” When Congress ended the bracero program in 1964, the pay and conditions for farm workers improved; but the rise of illegal immigration that followed undermined their progress. Ralph Abernathy and Walter Mondale joined Chavez in 1969 to protest the use by capital of illegal immigrants as strikebreakers. They marched to the Mexican border. 

Skerry notes that “multiculturalism has become a more powerful force within the Democratic Party – and American society – than labor solidarity.” This observation underscores the point I have long made that the multicultural attitudes of the liberal Democrat and the progressive are at odds with working class interests. The rhetoric we hear from them surrounding the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of a “nation of immigrants” misleads historical understanding. The reason French republicans donated Lady Liberty to the United States was to celebrate the American republic and recommend it as a model for the rest of the world. Lady Liberty is not a lighthouse to bring to the US those adrift in their own nations, but the bearer of a torch to light the way for other countries to sail to enlightenment, her broken chains representing human liberation from slavery literally and figuratively. “Far from inviting freedom-loving peoples around the world to the United States,” Skerry writes, “Lady Liberty’s torch was intended to inspire them to stay put and establish republics of their own.” That’s the statues’ slogan: “Liberty enlightening the world.” The famous lines from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, “New Colossus,” “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” did not find its way to the statue until the early twentieth century (the statue was dedicated in 1886, its purpose conceived well before then). The oft-heard claim that the global relation between the arrival of immigrants and the expansion of the colonial system – “We are here because you were there” – requires America’s to be a doormat to the world punishes the living for the crimes of the dead, an utterly immoral demand. But then why should working people pay for capitalist exploitation at all? They don’t already pay enough? If anybody is owed reparations, it’s the working class whose value makes the capitalist’s life possible.

The characterization of those who desire immigration control as “racist” and “xenophobic” gets story and motive wrong. In their book The Age of Mass Migration, economic historians Timothy Hatton and Jeffrey Williamson focus on the effects of immigration on labor markets and neighborhood conditions. The advent of the steamship, which made the trans-Atlantic voyage cheaper, faster, and safer, greatly expanded the flow of illiterate migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Large numbers of young men (many of whom did not intend to stay) “posed challenges involving neighborhood stability, community cohesion, social disorder, and crime.” Harvard economic historian Claudia Goldin found that the shift in national groups in the 1890s to those whose living standards and schooling levels differed markedly from earlier immigrants negatively impacted the wages of native-born workers. The story that immigration restriction in the U.S. during this period were the result of nativism flies in the face of evidence showing that opposition to immigration had much more to do with the negative consequences of immigration on the national proletariat than on nativist sentiment. Hatton and Williamson conclude that “racism and xenophobia do not seem to have been at work in driving the evolution of policy toward potential European immigrants.” And British scholar A.T. Lane: “careful examination of the columns of many labor journals has produced few examples of racist thinking applied to immigration.” 

It would take decades of the melting pot dynamic to forge a nation not of immigrants (the rhetoric doesn’t make much sense when you think about it), but of citizens, a history of assimilation that depended fundamentally on the restrictions imposed on immigration during the first decades of the twentieth century. And there were problems along the way, such as the large proportion of the German population loyal to the Fatherland (German American Bund) in the face of the fascist threat in Europe. 

The internal cohesion of the nation is an essential part of the ground upon which the national proletariat is built, reflected in the strength of labor unions in the post-war period. As immigration restrictions were loosened, and with the national dereliction of duty in securing the borders – there are between eleven and twenty million illegal immigrants in the United States today – labor’s strength and numbers proportionally declined. To be sure, there are many reasons for declining union numbers and power, as well as stagnant wages and rising inequality, but to ignore the effect of foreign workers on the character of labor markets is to deny reality.

The debate about immigration is so polarized, so emotionally explosive, yet at the same time so unfocused from a critical theoretical-practical standpoint (and here I mean from the standpoint of labor) that it is difficult to have a rational debate about it. Accusations of “racist” and “xenophobe” grind conversation to a halt. Those who have questions often respond by keeping them to themselves – and answering them for themselves. And that is not always for the best. Those of us on the left who care about the political context worry when people are driven to the rightwing end of things because the leftwing end doesn’t address their concerns. Immigration is a major source behind the frustration of many in the working class in the United States. Working families are feeling alienated from the social democratic traditions because of the way their concerns are dismissed out of hand – or worse, decried as “racist” and “fascist.” We do better when we discuss these issue with those with whom we disagree with charity and compassion. And we really do better when we argue from a class-theoretical standpoint. Then we’re on the ground of social realities. We’re forced into these conflicts by powerful forces: capitalism and war, the long histories behind them. Neoliberalism acutely lies behind the current crisis of immigration and the rise of nationalism. Neoliberal policymakers exploit open societies to undermine democracy and worker security. They throw everything into the market, extol the virtue of diversity in rebranding the result, and marginalize those who question any part of it. Without the traditional social democratic response – a labor-based/class analytical approach – working families turn to those forces who take their concerns seriously, and, unfortunately, that means ethno-nationalist voices. What is portrayed as the other side – the body of multiculturalist/identity-based practices that passes for left-leaning policy thinking today – is itself the ideological projection of bourgeois interest. 

The European situation is in many ways a preview of our future in the United States. Although the nationalist right is on the move there, most of our European brothers and sisters don’t hate other people. But they do want to know why, if the immigration issue in Europe is driven by humanitarian concern for refugees, those crossing the border are mostly young men. Where are the women, children, and old people? To be sure, there are some, but few enough to make the question relevant. Why, if new arrivals are not associated with crime, are the enclaves they establish and settle in so unwelcoming and even dangerous to travel to and through? Parts of Europe are seeing levels of violent crime – murder and rape – they haven’t seen in decades. People want to know why so many immigrants resist assimilation and integration only to hear that the desire for assimilation and integration is a racist one (it’s not). Why are intolerant fundamentalist religious communities popping up in secular societies like Sweden? Why are European governments tolerating cultural practices, for example in the treatment of women, that are contrary to the secular traditions of Europe? And why on earth are the governments of supposedly free and open societies criminalizing the right to complain about all this? People want to know why, if preservation of culture and tradition is so important, they’re smeared as “bigots” and “racist” for wanting to preserve theirs, a culture that has contributed so much to the world – the values of secularism, liberalism, equality, human rights, rule of law, free speech, and religious liberty. Sure, the West isn’t perfect (no place is), but have people taken a look around the planet? Certainly Europe and the United States must have something worthwhile in light of the fact that it is such a desirable destination. Is there value in keeping it a desirable place to live and visit? Increasingly, Europeans do not feel at home in their own countries.

Neoconservatives (really liberals) like Douglas Murray are on to something when they point out that the leaders of Europe are not listening to the people and so the people are turning to those who will, and that the left won’t like who they’re turning to. For the US, Peter Skerry puts it this way: “Trump, no doubt, played to racial sentiments. But he also saw something his opponents didn’t: that even if Democrats refuse to acknowledge some of the complexities of immigration, many voters still see a need for limits.” If we on the left want to slow the advance of the right, and accelerate the advance of the socialist cause, then we have to be realists on the immigration question. We have to listen to the national proletariat and fight for their interests, not for ivory tower ideas like multiculturalism and identity. Those are bourgeois notions that stand in place of an authentic working class politics. Indeed, they aim to fracture the working class. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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