It even sparked an impromptu, nationally televised debate between a CNN reporter and a White House official about the true symbolic meaning of the Statue of Liberty.
The idea that the U.S. currently accepts too many — and the wrong kind of — immigrants is among the most divisive in contemporary politics.
When Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue earlier in August unveiled the RAISE Act, a bill that would reduce legal immigration levels by half over a decade and move the U.S. to a skills-based system, progressive and minority activist groups were quick to denounce the proposal, saying that it was motivated by conservative animus toward people of color.
But the bill, or at least the general idea behind it, does have the support of some organizations within the sprawling social justice movement and among influential members of the progressive intelligentsia. In a rare bit of ideological alignment, they are putting forward many of the same arguments for reducing immigration as do the RAISE Act’s mostly conservative backers.
Questioning the conventional wisdom
Cotton and Perdue claim that America’s immigration system, as currently constituted, puts “great downward pressure on people who work with their hands and work on their feet.”
“Now, for some people, they may think that that’s a symbol of America’s virtue and generosity,” Cotton said while introducing the RAISE Act at a White House ceremony. “I think it’s a symbol that we’re not committed to working-class Americans.”
Tom Broadwater, the president of Americans4Work, is one activist who wholeheartedly backs that assertion.
His group bills itself as a citizen advocacy organization that seeks better economic opportunities for black and Hispanic-American citizens, veterans, the disabled and young people. Its political orientation is nonpartisan. Some of its policy prescriptions, such as criminal justice reform and stricter employment discrimination laws, are longtime liberal causes, while others like school choice have their origin in conservative or libertarian thought.
Broadwater, who is black, has no small amount of scorn for both the Republican and Democratic parties, which he says have “disadvantaged and damaged” the people Americans4Work represents. He believes Democrats deserve particular opprobrium, however, because they have endorsed a “progressive line” that insists all African-Americans agree with fellow “people of color” on the need for high levels of immigration.
“They presume that African Americans believe that illegal aliens, and continued onslaughts of legal immigrants, are helping [them] put food on the table,” Broadwater told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “And they are completely wrong about that.”
Broadwater dismisses out of hand the notion many liberal journalists and activists suggest — that limiting immigration is somehow a racist policy against minority groups. In case of the RAISE Act, he claims black and native-born Hispanic-Americans stand to benefit most from shrinking the supply of low-skill immigrants.
“The RAISE Act is a blessing for African-American citizens, for Hispanic-American citizens, and for everybody we represent,” he said. “It will curb a very disturbing economically damaging impact that all of this unbridled immigration has had on the country, on the labor economics of this country over the last 20 years.”
While economists generally agree that high levels of immigration boost a country’s overall economic output and, in certain cases, create jobs for the native-born, there is much less consensus about how those gains are distributed within the population. George Borjas, a Harvard economist and leading scholar of immigration and labor economics, argues that a mass influx of low-skilled immigrants hurts Americans on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
In a 2016 article for Politico Magazine, Borjas noted that the average high school dropout in the U.S. earns about $25,000 annually. Over the last two decades, immigration has increased the size of America’s low-skilled workforce by roughly 25 percent, resulting in a loss of earnings within the vulnerable population of non-diploma holders by as much as $1,500 per year, or 6 percent of income. Nevertheless, mass immigration’s downward pressure on wages is often overlooked because it occurs alongside net growth in gross domestic product (GDP).
“Somebody’s lower wage is always somebody else’s higher profit,” Borjas wrote. “In this case, immigration redistributes wealth from those who compete with immigrants to those who use immigrants—from the employee to the employer. And the additional profits are so large that the economic pie accruing to all natives actually grows.”
As Borjas and others have pointed out, this regressive wealth transfer is seldom discussed in mainstream media because the organizations that set the terms of the debate — employers of immigrant labor, Democratic-aligned tech companies, and left-wing activist groups — are the same ones that profit from high levels of immigration.
Winners and losers
Some high-profile liberal journalists now doubt that mass immigration is good for the people on whose behalf progressive politics are supposedly organized: the poor and working class. In an Aug. 9 essay entitled “Making the Democratic case for restricting immigration,” Vanity Fair contributor T.A. Frank argued that stricter border enforcement and reduced legal immigration would ultimately benefit native-born Americans in low-wage sectors of the economy.
“With the share of low-skill workers becoming smaller, many sorts of employment would start to pay better: home care, security work, massage therapy, dishwashing, gardening, housekeeping, cleaning, construction, gardening, manufacturing,” he wrote. “Out in the fields, agricultural wages would likewise start to rise little by little.”
Peter Beinart is another influential liberal writer who says contemporary Democratic thinking about immigration has become detached from the party’s roots as an advocate for working-class Americans. As he noted in a piece for The Atlantic in July, many liberal thought leaders as recently as the mid-2000s were ambivalent about mass immigration. Leading liberals such as economist Paul Krugman and then-Senator Barack Obama readily admitted that importing more than a million low-skill immigrants every year depressed the wages of American workers and put enormous strain on the nation’s welfare system.
Today, publicly acknowledging the downsides to mass immigration is something of a third rail in progressive politics, largely due to the influence of two groups: pro-immigration activists and the technology sector, according to Beinart. Because Democrats depend on the votes of the former and fundraising by the latter, they are reluctant to admit that America’s immigration system “pits two of the groups liberals care about most — the native-born poor and the immigrant poor — against each other,” Beinart wrote.
Kevin Lynn, the executive director of Progressives for Immigration Reform, says Democrats will continue to lose favor with native-born, working-class Americans if they refuse to touch the sensitive subject of who wins and who loses under the current immigration regime. President Donald Trump made immigration a centerpiece of his 2016 presidential campaign, cleaving off traditional Democratic voters who had become disillusioned with the party’s views on mass immigration, among other complaints.
“The people that voted for Trump, or simply didn’t vote for Clinton, they’re bearing the brunt of this,” Lynn told TheDCNF. “They realize that things like unbridled immigration really is a tool of the ‘corporatocracy’ to push the flow of capital and talent around the world, regardless of national boundaries.”
“It’s the working people that have really been the most vulnerable to this, between offshoring, robotization and immigration,” he added.
Ironically, many dyed-in-the-wool conservatives like Cotton and Perdue now offer similar justifications for curtailing immigration, albeit with less anti-corporate rhetoric. Under Trump, Republicans have used immigration restrictionism to claim the mantle of the party of the downtrodden American worker, something they haven’t managed to do since the “Reagan Democrat” phenomenon of the 1980s.
Vanity Fair’s Frank says the Democratic Party can take a page from that book if it is willing to concede that its policy goals are imperiled by “laissez-faire immigration.”
“Most problems that the left hopes to solve — poverty, bad schools, stagnant wages, homelessness, climate change — would instead be alleviated by more modest levels of immigration,” he wrote.