Ted Cruz has a new immigration-focused ad that offers a striking break with the clichéd visuals of US presidential campaigns. Indeed, it's even fairly novel in its content by opening with what amounts to a thought experiment. What if the people coming to the United States to work illegally weren't poorly educated Latin Americans who compete in the labor market with downscale Americans? What if they wore suits and ties?
In the ad, Cruz argues that "if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down wages in the press, then we would see stories about the economic calamity that has befallen our nation." This is a joke that features frequently in his stump speech, but overlaid on visuals suggestive of a movie trailer it backs more punch.
On substance, three points in response.
- First, it's simply false to say that the current rate of immigration to the United States is an economic calamity. All researchers agree that, on net, the incomes of native-born Americans are higher because of immigration — not lower. The research dispute is over a purely distributional question. Some researchers find that even though net incomes are higher, the incomes for US-born high school dropouts are lower. Other researchers find that this isn't the case. But either way, immigration is an economic benefit to the nation as a whole, not a calamity.
- Second, Cruz's specific example of journalists is politically savvy because everyone hates journalists. Substantively, though, journalists are already subject to quite a lot of global labor market competition thanks to the internet. You can't buy a haircut from an English barber or get dinner from a German restaurant, but you can read UK- or German-based websites, and US-based sites can open offices in foreign countries and employ foreign content creators. I will say I wish it were easier for US-based media companies to hire foreign-born journalists to have them come work in the United States. Vox's Canadian health writer Julia Belluz has done great work for us, but getting her a visa was kind of a pain.
- Third, Cruz mentions bankers and lawyers along with the media, and he waltzes up to an excellent point. If we changed the immigration system to facilitate more migration by highly paid professionals, the benefits to the economy as a whole would be large and especially concentrated among working-class Americans. Cruz raises this just to make a narrow argument about hypocrisy, but we should take the idea seriously — if it were easier for foreign doctors, foreign lawyers, foreign computer programmers, etc. to get green cards and live and work here, the country would benefit enormously.
All this economics quibbling aside, what's interesting about this is that the emotional heart of anti-immigration politics has always been fear of foreigners rather than economics. One way you can see this is that the research consensus is pretty clear that new immigrants from Latin America drive down the wages of earlier immigrants from Latin America, since they are in the most direct labor market competition. But it's not immigrants, naturalized citizens, or their relatives who are clamoring for immigration restrictions. And it's not particularly high school dropouts or white people who live in cities that attract lots of immigrants.
But the economic argument is considered wonky and respectable in a way that Trump's dark warnings about Mexico sending rapists across the border aren't. What Cruz is doing here, basically, is looking past Trump to a showdown with Marco Rubio in which Cruz is going to want to mobilize Trump's voters (hence the focus on the immigration issue) while putting a more acceptable gloss on the substance by focusing on economics.