The “Populist” Right’s Anti-Immigrant Arguments Don’t Add Up

Ben Burgis / Jacobin
The “Populist” Right’s Anti-Immigrant Arguments Don’t Add Up Migrants walk along concertina wire on the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. (photo: Eric Gay/AP)

The ugly new bipartisan immigration bill fortunately failed to pass the Senate. Mass deportations won't benefit the US working class.

The Senate’s most recent bipartisan immigration bill, which was packaged with foreign aid proposals and stalled out earlier this week, would have made our already draconian machine for detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers even more cruel. People who say they left their home countries because they were afraid of being killed or tortured would be processed more quickly, not because the old system is being expanded to deal with the backlog, but because a new system would be introduced — one in which asylum seekers would have fewer rights.

Under the proposed policy, the standard immigrants would have to meet to even earn the right to fuller consideration would be set much higher. And the cases would be processed not by the Department of Justice but by the Department of Homeland Security, where they would be subject to “a much faster review, often without attorneys or a deliberative process.” And a “shut-down” provision would mean that if too many undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers were encountering the Border Patrol at once, even this degraded level of due process would be thrown out the window.

It’s true enough that some people who claim asylum are actually economic migrants trying to use whatever loophole they can find to escape deportation. But the loss of due process rights would also mean that more people with legitimate asylum cases would be turned away. Nor should we grant that people who are “just” trying to escape desperate poverty should have the door slammed on them as quickly and harshly as possible.

Centrist Democrats have long floated a willingness to agree to more draconian border enforcement as part of a comprehensive immigration reform package that would include a pathway to citizenship for some significant number of the undocumented immigrants who are already in the United States. But this bill contained no such give-and-take. It was just about making the system harsher. Democrats were willing to agree to it in exchange for keeping funding for ongoing wars in Ukraine and Palestine.

The good news is that the bill was stopped in its tracks earlier this week. The bad news is that this happened neither because of the efforts of members of Congress who want the United States to enact a more humane immigration system — or fund fewer wars — but because so many Republican border hawks didn’t think it went far enough.

Sometimes that’s justified by fearmongering about drugs and crime or, in some cases, pretty frank xenophobia. But many on the Right have been putting a “populist” spin on the argument.

Republican senator Josh Hawley wrote an op-ed arguing that anyone who was willing to vote for this package instead of holding out for something even harsher was a “betrayal of American workers,” since cheap immigrant labor brings down wage levels. Conservative commentator Saagar Enjeti, who cohosts the news show Breaking Points, argued in a debate on the border bill with his left-wing cohost Krystal Ball that the need to keep out immigrants to keep wage levels up was obvious — a matter of “supply and demand.” Newsweek opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon wrote an article arguing that Democrats used to understand this back when they were a “party of the working class,” and that it’s only with the party’s neoliberal turn that they became more sympathetic to loosening immigration standards.

On closer inspection, however, none of these arguments add up.

Debunking Hawley, Enjeti, and Ungar-Sargon

In the debate with Ball, Enjeti mixed and matched the wage arguments with more dubious claims. He said, for example, that making it easier for people who don’t cross at legal ports of entry — even ones with asylum claims — is unfair to people like his parents, who had to jump through many more hoops to come over from India. This mirrors the conservative argument that forgiving student debt or other forms of burdensome debt is unfair to people who’ve already paid off their debt. But in both cases, not helping people currently facing imposing obstacles doesn’t do anything to help people who cleared similar or worse obstacles in the past. Why isn’t the answer to make things easier for immigrants like Enjeti’s parents rather than harder for migrants and asylum seekers at the Mexican border?

When Ball suggested that US policy in Latin America helped create the conditions from which many migrants want to flee, Enjeti said that this was unfair to people in countries where bad conditions were more unambiguously the fault of the United States — like Iraq. Ball’s response was the obvious one: Why not let in more Iraqis, then?

At another point, Ball granted that completely open borders might be a stretch. There may be a limit to how many newcomers can reasonably be processed at once, so a sort of immigration speed limit might make sense. But she said the country can handle many more newcomers than Enjeti suggested. He countered with survey data showing that nine hundred million people around the world would leave their societies if they could. But what he missed was that the same survey showed that only 160 million of them listed the United States as their preferred destination. And again, Ball wasn’t suggesting taking all 160 million at once.

But what about the wage-level argument?

The empirical evidence on that issue isn’t nearly as strong as many of these commentators suggest. A lot depends on which workers we’re talking about, and in which sectors of the economy. If immigration leads to economic growth, we also aren’t necessarily talking about the number of job seekers going up while the number of jobs remains static. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that none of the people I just mentioned go around encouraging working-class people to have smaller families on the grounds that there will be a lower supply of labor and hence more bargaining power for workers. But I wouldn’t deny that changes in the labor supply sometimes do play out in the way these commentators suggest, especially when the new workers are more likely to accept lower wages.

Does this mean, as Ungar-Sargon suggests, that the politics of immigration in the Democratic Party have become less restrictionist because Democrats have become less aligned with working-class interests? This ignores that labor unions have become much more sympathetic to less restrictionist policies — a fact that Ungar-Sargon acknowledges but handwaves away. It also ignores that mainstream Democrats continue to be fairly hawkish about the border in practice. Biden sung a different tune when he was trying to appeal to liberal voters in 2020, but in reality, he’s deported more people than Trump had at the same point in his presidency.

Most importantly, though, her timeline doesn’t work. To find an example of liberals having been hawkish about immigration, she has to go back to recommendations made by a commission chaired by “liberal icon” Barbara Jordan in the 1990s. But does anyone think the ’90s were a time when the Democrats were a “party of the working class”? This was the era of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), financial deregulation, and Bill Clinton’s grim and Dickensian “welfare reform.”

Speaking of Clinton, he supported and signed legislation that “laid the groundwork for the massive deportation machine that exists today.” His immigration bill made many more people eligible for deportation and many fewer eligible for legal status.

Meanwhile, the most important liberalization of immigration rules in modern American history was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. That one was supported and signed by Lyndon Johnson in the same period of his presidency that he was championing Medicare and declaring a “war on poverty.”

None of this is to suggest that the politics of immigration have always been the opposite of what Ungar-Sargon suggests. It’s complicated. Ronald Reagan, for example, gave us an amnesty for many undocumented immigrants. But it does mean that Ungar-Sargon’s narrative is severely simplistic and misleading.

So is the idea that current unions’ support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers represents a reversal from the restrictionist position historically taken by organized labor. It depends on which labor leaders you’re talking about. As Hawley points out, United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez was a border hawk who was intensely committed to keeping out undocumented immigrants, whom he believed posed a threat to wage levels. Similarly, you can go back to the beginning of the twentieth century and find American Federation of Labor leader Samuel Gompers disparaging immigrant workers as the “trash on labor’s doorstep.” But that certainly wasn’t the position of more militant unions that existed in the same era, like the Industrial Workers of the World. Nor, in the 1930s, was it the position of the socialists and communists who led general strikes that shut down entire American cities.

Anyone who wants to paint restrictionism as the obvious “pro–working class” position needs to do better than simply pointing to labor’s history. Too much of that history clashes with the narrative.

If we’re going to talk about the issue on its merits instead of cherry-picking the historical record, a preliminary point to make is that alleged concern about wage levels is unpersuasive coming from politicians like Hawley who don’t support the PRO Act (which would make it easier for workers to organize unions), or even the across-the-board increase in the minimum wage to $15/hour (which low-wage workers have been demanding for long enough that $15 no longer goes nearly as far as it did when the campaign started). Why not directly prop up wage levels with $15 an hour or making labor laws better for workers trying to get organized, instead of trying to indirectly influence wage levels by rounding up desperate families, holding them in (usually privately owned) detention facilities, and deporting them to conditions bad enough to inspire a difficult and dangerous trip across the border in the first place?

Of course, some right-populist immigration restrictionists might be sincere enough that — unlike Hawley — they want to do both. What can we say to them? The main thing I’d say is just this:

Let’s take it for granted that cheap labor from undocumented immigrants or asylum seekers with work permits drags down wage levels for native-born workers. Certainly, to the extent that it happens, I agree that it’s bad. It’s a problem we need to solve. But acknowledging that is compatible with multiple solutions.

We can apply police-state tactics to trying to round up millions of peaceful and otherwise law-abiding people who just want to secure a decent life for themselves and their families, thus decreasing the supply of cheap labor with the hope that this translates into higher wage levels. Let’s call that Plan A. But Plan B would be to extend American citizenship (and the rights and protections that go with it) to the undocumented workforce so people weren’t constrained by the fear that the boss could get them deported if they cause any problems. That way, people could come out of the shadows, get organized, and make their labor less cheap.

Plan A is both extremely unrealistic, given the sheer numbers involved, and brutally inhumane to millions of desperately poor members of the working class. Little wonder that so many labor organizers are ready to give Plan B a chance.

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