The Two Sides of Immigration Policy

The Two Sides of Immigration Policy

We need to legalize the undocumented already here, but open borders will mean lower wages for American workers.

February 1, 2018

This article appears in the Winter 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

During his campaign, Donald Trump used the issue of illegal immigration as a nativist dog whistle. According to Trump, Mexico was sending criminals over the border. He called for deporting the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Trump’s strident appeals definitely contributed to his success in the Republican primaries, and probably were of net benefit to him in the general election, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa.

After the election, Trump accused undocumented immigrants of surreptitiously voting for Hillary Clinton in the general election. He and his attorney general have stepped up deportations, even for traffic offenses. And he has refused to extend the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows the children of undocumented immigrants, who came to the United States through no choice of their own, to avoid deportation. After agreeing to work with Democratic congressional leaders on a bill extending DACA, he reneged by attaching conditions, including funding for a border wall, that he knew Democrats would reject.

In fact, Trump has not come close to deporting the 12 million. According to reports last September, he has deported fewer undocumented immigrants than the Obama administration did in a comparable period. But his rhetoric, and his rejection of DACA, have sown fear among immigrants. A friend reports that in parts of Texas, where there is little public transportation, undocumented immigrants who cannot obtain driver’s licenses are trapped in their homes, fearful that if they are apprehended while driving, they will be deported. Trump’s policies are cruel and inhumane; and they help reinforce the existence of a fearful, docile underclass that can be exploited by political demagogues and avaricious business managers and owners.

Democrats and liberals have rightly rejected Trump’s words and deeds. And they have reasserted the need to find an eventual path to citizenship for the 12 million. But in responding to Trump’s xenophobia, many have gone to the opposite extreme and denied, in effect, that a problem really exists. They have consistently downplayed or denied that there is any urgent need to stanch the flow of unauthorized immigration. The party’s 2016 platform plank on immigration gave short shrift to the problem of illegal immigration, merely calling for law enforcement that is “humane and consistent with our values.”

Rex Features via AP Images

In August, Trump announced his support for the RAISE Act, a proposal from Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue that bore a striking resemblance to immigration policy recommendations put forward by Democrats in 1997.

They have also denied that the massive influx of unskilled labor over the last five decades has held down wages, increased social costs, or undermined unionization in some sectors, including construction, agriculture, and meatpacking. A major Democratic think tank, the Center for American Progress, put out a position paper asserting that “immigrants complement native-born workers and increase the standard of living for all Americans” (my italics). Democrats and liberals have joined business conservatives in insisting that unskilled immigrants are simply taking jobs that American-born workers won’t take, ignoring, for instance, the displacement of African Americans in the hotel industry.

The Democrats’ penchant to reject without consideration any stance associated with Trump—even if it merits discussion—is borne out by their reaction to the immigration reform proposal (the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment, or RAISE, Act) put forward by Republican Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue. Cotton and Perdue had originally introduced their plan in February to little fanfare, but in August Trump endorsed the plan, making it his own.

To anyone familiar with the history of immigration debate, Cotton and Perdue’s proposals strikingly resembled those put forward in 1997 by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by former Democratic Representative Barbara Jordan, a leading liberal of her day. In line with Jordan’s recommendations, Cotton and Perdue propose giving priority to skilled immigrants, narrowing the criteria for family reunification, and reducing the annual number of immigrants.

At the time, Bill Clinton reacted favorably to the Jordan Commission’s recommendations, but when Cotton and Perdue made similar recommendations, and when Trump endorsed them, the two leading Democratic senators rejected them out of hand. Illinois’s Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, accused the plan of “gutting legal immigration” and of being “nothing more than a partisan ploy appealing to the racist and xenophobic instincts Trump encouraged during [the] campaign.” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer dismissed it as a “non-starter.” That reflects, of course, the even more polarized politics of the Trump era, but also the Democrats’ out-of-hand dismissal of proposals that once seemed sensible.

Democrats believe, of course, that in downplaying illegal immigration and insisting that immigration benefits everyone, they are standing up for their own constituents. They think that working-class Americans who backed Trump on this issue failed to understand their own interests. But Democrats are wrong in this case. While many American businesses and the well-to-do have clearly benefited from the massive influx of unskilled immigrants, many middle- and working-class Americans, including such key Democratic constituents as African Americans, have not.


AMERICA'S CURRENT IMMIGRATION policy dates from 1965, when Congress passed a bill eliminating the quotas on national origin that had been adopted in 1924 to limit immigration from eastern and southern Europe. The 1965 act was adopted on civil rights and humanitarian grounds. It was not expected to increase immigration dramatically. Lyndon Johnson’s Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach told a Senate hearing: “This bill is not designed to increase or accelerate the numbers of newcomers permitted to come to America. Indeed, this measure provides for an increase of only a small fraction in permissible immigration.”

But the bill created a large and growing increase, particularly from Latin America, because of a provision that allowed for family reunification. In 1990, Congress passed another bill—this time enthusiastically backed by business—that increased still further the total quotas on immigrants. The immigrant population exploded. In 1970, the foreign-born accounted for 4.72 percent of the U.S. population; by 2014, it was 13.3 percent.

During the same period, illegal immigration across the border also grew, the result in part of the repeal in 1964 of the bracero guest-worker program, but also of a huge increase in Latin American population that was not matched by growing prosperity. (NAFTA played a role by decimating small-scale agriculture in Mexico.) There are now an estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, although some labor economists would put the number higher.

In 1986, Congress and the Reagan administration tried to stem illegal immigration by making it illegal for employers to knowingly hire workers without citizenship papers, but employers did not have to check whether the papers were authentic. Attempts to create a more rigorous computerized system of checking have been resisted by business lobbies. Employer fines were few in the Clinton years—417 in 1999—but virtually ceased under George W. Bush, who levied three fines in 2004. That has put the emphasis on border control, even though half or less of undocumented immigrants actually come across the border. Most just overstay tourist or other visas.

About one-third to one-half of the immigrants coming legally into the United States are unskilled or lower-skilled. According to a Brookings Institution study, almost one in three don’t even have a high school diploma. About half lack proficiency in the English language. Those percentages are considerably higher among undocumented immigrants. About 70 percent lack proficiency in English. As a result, the greatest percentages of immigrants find unskilled work in agriculture, construction, health care (as aides), maids and housekeeping, and food service.

Many of the studies of the effects of immigration are financed by business groups and lobbying organizations that have a stake in the outcome. I put them in the same category as the “studies” of business-financed think tanks that predicted that NAFTA and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization would reduce the American trade deficit.

But there are a number of studies that show that while immigration has resulted in a rise in overall wealth, it has been a significant, though not the only, factor in the decline of wages among the low-skilled workers who had to compete with the influx of new immigrants.

In 1997, the same year the Jordan Commission issued its findings, the National Academy of Sciences published a report on immigration. While lauding the overall effects of immigration, the report acknowledged that “almost one-half of the decline in real wages for native-born high school dropouts from 1980 to 1994 could be attributed to the adverse impact of unskilled foreign workers.” Last year, the National Academy of Sciences published a new extensive study of immigration. It found again that “to the extent that negative wage effects are found, prior immigrants—who are often the closest substitutes for new immigrants—are most likely to experience them, followed by native-born high school dropouts, who share job qualifications similar to the large share of low-skilled workers among immigrants to the United States.”

Erik McGregor/Sipa via AP Images

At an International Workers Day rally in May, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio affirms his support for immigrant communities—a Democratic tradition dating back to the origins of Tammany Hall.

These findings would accord with the simple law of supply and demand. A rapid increase in supply either holds down increases in wages or results in reduced wages. Harvard economist George Borjas, who participated in the NAS study, estimates that within a particular skill group, a 10 percent increase in supply results in at least a 3 percent reduction in wages.

As the NAS study notes, the two groups in the labor force most immediately affected are prior immigrants and high school dropouts. Many of the first-generation immigrants are Hispanic, and many of the high school dropouts, or those with only a high school degree, are African American. And there are studies showing that workers from these two groups have been hit hard by competition from immigrants.

In a 2014 survey, sociologist Stephen Steinberg concluded that legal and illegal immigration had damaged opportunities for African Americans “in construction, light manufacturing, building maintenance, the hotel and leisure industry, the health care industry, and even public-sector jobs where one-third of blacks are employed.”

In 2010, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission issued a report on “The Impact of Illegal Immigration on the Wages and Employment Opportunities of Black Workers.” It concluded that “illegal immigration to the United States in recent decades has tended to depress both wages and employment rates for low-skilled American citizens, a disproportionate number of whom are black men.” As Steinberg notes, one of the great ironies of our recent history is that immigration policy, which was partly inspired by the civil rights movement, has probably had a negative effect on African Americans at a time when African Americans might have been able to take advantage of the passage of civil rights acts outlawing employment discrimination.

Some pundits and political scientists insist that unskilled immigrants don’t take jobs from native-born Americans. On building crews, for instance, immigrants and non-immigrants work side by side; most construction laborers are native-born. In other sectors, however, as businesses use legal and illegal immigrant labor to drive out unions and drive down wages and working conditions, native-born workers do begin to shun certain jobs. They become too “dirty” for Americans to take, and are then cited by business lobbies as grounds for increasing the number of unskilled immigrants—including so-called guest and temporary workers.

A good example is the transformation of the meatpacking industry. In 2001, The New York Times described what had happened to the industry over the preceding 20 years:

Until 15 or 20 years ago, meatpacking plants in the United States were staffed by highly paid, unionized employees who earned about $18 an hour, adjusted for inflation. Today, the processing and packing plants are largely staffed by low-paid non-union workers from places like Mexico and Guatemala. Many of them start at $6 an hour.

This didn’t happen because the people who worked in meatpacking plants decided they wanted to become computer programmers. The companies brought in immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, to undermine the unions and depress wages. Something similar has happened in construction and low-skilled services, where documented and undocumented immigrants were brought in to undermine unionization. Some unions, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and UNITE HERE, have succeeded in organizing immigrants in hotels, restaurants, and janitorial services, but they are basically fighting an uphill battle.

The labor movement lobbied for the restrictions on immigration that Congress adopted in 1921 and 1924. The leaders of organized labor believed at the time that the huge inflow of immigrants was making it impossible to organize workers to better their conditions. During the prior decades, employers had used immigrants as strike-breakers. The legislation itself was tainted with nativism and anti-Semitism and contributed to the tragic denial of asylum in the 1930s to Jews fleeing Central Europe, but the restrictions imposed on the numbers of low-skilled immigrants were a factor in union successes from the 1930s through the 1960s and in wage increases during that period.

The temporary cessation of mass immigration also, as Borjas argues in his new book We Wanted Workers, facilitated the assimilation of the millions of immigrants who had entered the United States before 1920. They were able to work their way up through the new industrial economy that employed them and that, thanks to the growth of unionism, paid middle-class wages in the decades following World War II. But many of the low-skilled and unskilled immigrants who have come into the United States since 1965 and are employed in the lower rungs of a service economy may not find it as easy to attain middle-class incomes and living standards.

Well through the 1990s, Democrats and the labor movement worried that this massive immigration was undermining unionization and holding down wages. That was reflected in the findings of the Jordan Commission in 1997 and in union support for the enforcement of the law prohibiting employers from hiring undocumented immigrants. But that understanding has disappeared. In the face of the government’s failure to stem illegal immigration, unions had no choice but to attempt to organize immigrants and push for a path to citizenship for them. But for Democrats, uncritical backing for immigration was also the result of a political calculation that may turn out to be wrong.


MANY DEMOCRATIC LEADERS assume that in opposing measures to stem illegal immigration or to change the priorities of our current law, they are winning the support of Hispanic voters. And there is, or has been, some truth in that. When Republicans have accompanied arguments against illegal immigration with naked xenophobic appeals, as California Republicans did in promoting Proposition 187 in 1994, they have alienated Hispanic voters. That dynamic is still with us. In a current Gallup poll, 78 percent of Hispanics oppose or strongly oppose Trump’s plan to deport all illegal immigrants—compared with 62 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

Erik McGregor/Sipa via AP Images

Immigrants, workers, and activists rally for immigrant rights in New York

But at the same time, pluralities or majorities of Hispanics are leery of illegal immigration, and want it restricted. They look with disfavor on the massive immigration of unskilled workers. In a 2013 Gallup poll, 74 percent of Hispanics favor and only 24 percent oppose “tightening security at U.S. borders,” and 65 percent favor and only 34 percent oppose “requiring business owners to check the immigration status of workers they hire.”

Politico/Morning Consult ran an extensive poll last August to gauge the public’s reaction to the Cotton-Perdue bill. The poll found significant support among Hispanics for some of its provisions. For instance, 42 percent of Hispanics thought the United States allowed too many “low-skilled workers” to immigrate, and only 21 percent thought the number was “about right.” Hispanics thought job skills should be a higher priority than family reunification by 49 percent to 33 percent, and by 50 percent to 37 percent thought that English proficiency should be a factor in immigration decisions. In other words, Hispanic voters were favorably inclined toward a proposal that aimed to change the priorities in our immigration policy.

Hispanic preferences were roughly the same as those of all registered voters. One of the few groups in the poll that was evenly divided on whether there are too many or just the right number of low-skilled immigrants were people who make more than $100,000. A plurality of the other income groups thought there are too many low-skilled immigrants coming into the country. In sum, the Democratic stance on these issues is not only unpopular with most voters, but with many Hispanics as well. Except as a response to Trump’s xenophobia, the Democrats’ response makes no political sense, and is not benefiting their own working-class constituents.

There is one more political dimension to the argument about immigration that is voiced by leading Democrats and Republicans. It is that continuing large-scale immigration of unskilled workers will help the Democrats politically and hurt the Republicans. That calculation lies at the bottom of Democratic hopes and Republican fears of immigration. It encourages Democrats to ignore the downside of mass and illegal immigration and Republicans to seek to cut immigration and to do whatever they can do to discourage immigrants already here from voting.

The parties’ complementary calculations may prove correct. Democrats, after all, have historically been the party of immigrants. But I’d contend that on several counts, it could prove short-sighted. If one assumes that Hispanics will, like previous immigration groups, eventually move up the economic ladders and assimilate—becoming “white” in the perverse language of American racial categorization—then Hispanics may not prove to be a dependable Democratic constituency. Outside California, there are indications that may be the case. Republican candidates for governor in Texas and the Senate in North Carolina have almost broken even among Hispanic voters. And Trump, perhaps because he appeared to promise jobs, actually did better with Hispanic voters than 2012 candidate Mitt Romney.

Secondly, the continual surge of low-skilled immigrants into the United States will contribute to an impoverished underclass that holds down wages and creates welfare costs for small towns and states. The existence of that underclass has helped fuel bitter cultural-economic conflicts that have riven America over the last 30 years. It undercuts any promise of an American social democracy or extension of New Deal liberalism, which must be based on a common sense of community. It is already threatening the social solidarity that sustained European social democracy. So in the long run, even if some Democrats benefit at the ballot box, an uncritical stance toward immigration is bad news for the country.

What, then, can the Democratic Party do? On the one hand, it is reasonable to push for a path to citizenship, and especially to prevent the cruel deportation of immigrants who were brought here illegally as children and often literally have no home country to return to. It’s also important to defend the labor rights of all residents of the United States, even those without papers, and to resist wholesale raids. But Democrats make both a policy mistake and a political one when they become cheerleaders for illegal immigration and for expanded immigration in general, while denying the plain fact that in many cases immigrants do indeed lower the wages of local workers. Building a wall is bad policy, but so is ignoring the plain realities.  

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