The Immigration Situation

Some of those who seek entry into the United States or who enter and stay here illegally are fleeing from danger for reasons that align with international convention. However, most are not. They are economic migrants, lured across the border by employers who seek to exploit their labor at the expense of native-born workers. Some immigrants come to the United States for the promise of a better life, but others do not intend to stay; they plan to return to their country as soon as they feel they’ve made enough money here. As terrible as criminal violence can be, this is a reason to change the circumstances in one’s country, not flee it.

The effects of immigration on native-born labor is not trivial. When the supply of labor increases, the price of labor (i.e. the wage) decreases. Over the last half century, wages for the most vulnerable native workers have fallen with the increase in the labor supply, and workers in those sectors that absorb the most immigrants have suffered the most. While immigrants come with variable skill levels, it is the low-skilled immigrants that have the biggest impact on native-born workers because they crowd out low-skilled labor, those at the margins of society who are disproportionately black and brown, and who are most likely to be the targets of the agents of coercive control.

The United States absorbs a far greater number of immigrants than other countries, and in the past two decades alone immigrants without high school diplomas have increased the low-skilled workforce by around 25 percent. It’s not just low-skilled sectors; studies of abuse of the H-1B visa program find that tech firms fire native-born workers if cheaper immigrant labor is available. But the working poor suffer the brunt of, in part because they are less able to pivot to something else. Regardless of skill-level, as Professor of Economics and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School professor George J. Borjas points out, “Immigration redistributes wealth from those who compete with immigrants to those who use immigrants—from the employee to the employer.”

The debate over the economic impact of immigrants is typically framed in terms of whether it is a boon or a detriment to the economy. However, this obscures the economic impact of immigration in a manner similar to how per capita GDP figures obscure economic inequality. For the working class as a whole, the presence of immigrant labor results in the transfer of half a trillion dollars from the working class to the capitalist class every year, disproportionately impacting those workers with lower skill levels. The winners of this massive transfer are capitalist firms, who pay significantly less in labor costs, and immigrants, who could not command the same level of pay or enjoy the same living conditions in their home countries. The losers are native-born workers. They not only lose income and livelihoods, but the quality of the conditions of life, while seeing consciousness and the political formation of their social class disrupted. 

Focusing the debate on economics also obscures the social and cultural impact of immigration. The elites who exploit immigrants for super-profits do not care about the crowded living conditions, compromised social services, or the other problems caused by illegal and large-scale immigration. The rich don’t live in those communities so they don’t have to suffer the material and cultural fallout from mass immigration. Working people have to pay for the social problems capitalist create in their pursuit of profit. Immigrants utilize government assistance at higher rates than natives, yet they pay lower taxes (because they have lower earnings), and, in the case of illegal immigration, pay little to no property, payroll, and income taxes. This means that every year a multi-billion-dollar burden is placed upon the shoulders of the native-born population.

Where is the today’s left on the problem of immigration? Only a decade ago I wouldn’t feel so alone in my support for immigration restrictions. Progressive folks on the left were then speaking up on behalf of native-born workers. Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept wrote on his blog in 2005, “Illegal immigration wreaks havoc economically, socially, and culturally; makes a mockery of the rule of law; and is disgraceful just on basic fairness grounds alone.” In 2006, Paul Krugman, professor of economics at the City University of New York, and columnist for The New York Times, wrote, in “Notes on Immigration,” that “immigration reduces the wages of domestic workers who compete with immigrants” and noted that “the fiscal burden of low-wage immigrants is also pretty clear.” He concluded, “We’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants.”

But Greenwald has walked back the sentiments expressed in that blog entry, chalking it up to youthful carelessness and a penchant for provocation. And, in a June 2018 op-ed, Krugman, contradicting his early statement about the impact of low-education immigration on the wages of low-education native-born working, appeals to the fallacy of reductio ad Hitlerum, pairing popular complaints about immigration to the antisemitic blood libel. In the same paragraph wherein he admits to disagreement over the effect of low-skilled immigrants he next characterizes such concerns as “just sick fantasies being used to justify real atrocities.” He writes, “There is no immigration crisis; there is no crisis of immigrant crime. No, the real crisis is an upsurge in hatred.” (Maybe it is not a crisis for Krugman when immigration results in the transfer of $500 billion annually from the working class to the capitalist class. While I cannot take this up here, it should suffice to note that claims about the neutral impact of immigration of crime lump all immigrants together; a significant proportion of immigrants are from the Asian world, the least criminogenic cultures on the planet. And while there is an upsurge in hate in the United States, to an extent driven by right-wing rhetoric, the rhetoric works upon the ground of widespread frustration among the working class with US immigration policy.) 

The shift among progressives from defending the interests of native-born workers to advocating open borders and smearing those who dissent from the agenda has a lot to do with the psychological fallout over the election of Donald Trump, which has reframed the uncontroversial policies of the Obama Administration and redefined them as right wing and nativist. Remember when the left opposed war in Iraq when Bush was president, but fell silent as Obama bombed Libya and instigated civil war in Syria? Or #MeToo outrage over Donald Trump’s misogyny yet silence in the face of allegations of rape against Bill Clinton? The cause of the phenomenon—the pendulum swings from hysteria to equanimity to hysteria—is the mass psychological condition under the two-party political apparatus. The politically active do not focus their politics on class analysis and moral principle as much as on identity politics and virtue signaling these days. Whether something is wrong depends on the identity of the wrongdoer not the nature of the wrongdoing. This is what lies behind Krugman’s about face on immigration’s harmful impact.

Analysis of immigration requires seeing beyond the ideological subjectivity of emotionalism and partisanship. The facts are striking. There are approximately 43 million foreign-born people living in the United States: 21 million naturalized US citizens and 23 million noncitizens. Of the latter, approximately 13 million are permanent residents, 11 million are here illegally (although that number is likely higher), and two million hold temporary visas. The number of foreign-born persons in the US has more than quadrupled since 1965. In 1965, foreign-born persons represented 5 percent of the US population. By 2015, they comprised 13.5 percent of the population (this is not much below peak immigration in 1890, when the foreign-born population was around 15 percent of the total population). The desire to come to the United States is very great. In a June 2017 poll, Gallup found that as many as 37 million people in Latin America desire to relocate to the US permanently. One-third of all Hondurans express a desire to come live in the United States. In total, 150 million people—or 4% of the world’s adult population—would move to the U.S. if they could. If everyone who wanted to move to the U.S. had their way, the country’s total population would increase by almost 50%.

Significantly, the period of mass immigration 1890-1930 moved Americans to demand restrictions on the flow of immigrants, not so much out of nativism or racism (the immigrants were white Europeans), but because steam ships allowed for the mass introduction of low-skilled labor who were used by industrialists to suppress the wages of native workers. Mass immigration was behind marked deterioration of neighborhood conditions, with rising inequality, poverty, and crime. So is it really that surprising that the topic of immigration would return as a political topic when the numbers again approached that level? Yet the experiences of ordinary Americans are pitted against the multiculturalist attitudes and cocooned life of affluent Americas on the east and west coasts that accuse those who complain of the worst possible motives. Failing to see the left come to their defense, working Americans are seeking out new leaders and checking out different politics.

The pace of illegal immigration has been slowing. The Obama Administration was aggressive in controlling immigration and the Trump Administration has continued these policies—in the fact of tremendous resistance. The strategies used by Obama and Trump include tighter border controls, stepped-up deportations, and more frequent prosecutions for unlawful re-entry. The decline is also attributable to the economic crisis of 2007. At that point, the illegal proportion or the US population exceeded 12 million. Half of all illegal aliens in the United States are Mexicans, which is why the problem often gets defined as the problem of Mexican immigration, but here, too, the numbers are declining. From 1980 to 2014, the number of Mexican legal residents in the US grew faster than their illegal counterparts. However, numbers from Central America’s Northern Triangle, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are growing, outpacing growth from elsewhereMore than illegal border crossings, immigrants who entered the United States legally (on nonimmigrant visas) are overstaying their visas. Illegal immigrants are overrepresented in the workforce, so they carry a disproportionate economic impact relative to the presence in the population. Many of those who are being deported are those who have overstayed their visas.

What about refugees? During the 1990s, most refugees were from the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. Most refugees today come from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Sudan. Most of the rest come from other African countries. Comparatively few refugees come from Central and South America, but given the proximity of the United States to the southern western hemisphere, we see more of them than do other countries. The number of those leaving the Northern Triangle, number in the tens of thousands. It is a very dangerous journey, especially for unaccompanied children, which comprise a large proportion of the total. They risk human trafficking and death from starvation, thirst, and exposure. Signaling open borders puts more of them in danger. Many of those claiming to be refugees cite criminal violence as the push factor. However, this, as well as the claim of domestic violence, have not been historically considered legitimate reasons to seek asylum. Such claims are hard to verify. Moreover, on principle, they do not align with the principle of asylum seeking. Criminal and domestic violence are rampant throughout much of the world. There is broad consensus internationally that these are legitimate claims: nationality (ethnicity), political opinion, race, and religion. Criminal violence that does not target members of groups on the basis of that association is considered interpersonal and does not confer refugee status.

Although it is worse in the US than elsewhere in the world in terms of the proportion of the population that is foreign-born, the problem of mass immigration is not unique to the US. Europe is experiencing a migrant crisis. There are crucial differences. In Sweden, for example, a country I have looked at closely, 80% of those who entered Sweden in 2015 were young men, whereas half of immigrants in the United States are women, a long-standing shift in gender representation. As in the US, most of those who cross the border or overstay their visas in European countries are not refugees or asylum seekers but economic migrants. As with many European countries, Sweden does not have housing and jobs for immigrants. The consequence of this is strain on the social supports Swedes (mothers, children, the elderly, the disabled) depend on, and a rise in crime and poverty. This is not only unfair to Swedes, but to the refugees and asylum seekers who need critical services, as well as to immigrants who are following the rules to legally enter the country (yes, persons who illegally enter a country harm the chances of those who are seeking to legally enter). 

I am in favor of following the international convention on refugees and asylum seekers. The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, or the 1951 Refugee Convention (with amendments) defines who is a refugee, delineates the rights of persons granted asylum, as well as the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum. The Convention is rooted in Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 1967 protocol defines a refugee thus: “A person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” Crucially, refugees have substantial legal obligations in the Convention, principally, they must abide by the laws of the nation hosting them.

There is a basic truth in all this: if you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country. There is nothing immoral or oppressive or reactionary about drawing borders and defending them. Our foremost concern must be about justice. It is not fair to native-born workers to undermine their livelihoods and communities for the sake of capitalist profit. If we enforce immigration law, fewer people will come to the United States, and those who do will come via an orderly process and bring with them the knowledge and skills that will improve communities in the United States. The United States is not here to police the world or save the world, and it troubles me that those who support rational immigration policy are smeared as “nativists” and “racists.” The reality of enforcing the law is no reason for ignoring the law. Instead of demanding the abolition of ICE, the left should insist on due process and humanitarian treatment of those who cross the border or overstay their visas.

(Note: Readers may object that Borjas’ politics lean conservative. However, as The Miami Herald points out, while he supports increased restrictions on immigration, “he doesn’t believe a wall—built by Mexico or anyone else—does any good. He opposes the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants as inhumane. And he advocates a tax on businesses—high-tech, agricultural and all the rest—that profit from cheaper immigrant wages, and giving that money to Americans displaced by the immigrants.”) 

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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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