clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What’s the point of an anti-immigrant left?

Protestors Rally Against Immigration Ban On Wall Street Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

It’s normal in the wake of a crushing political defeat for the losing party to rethink things, and The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart’s latest piece is an important entry in Democrats’ attempt to understand what happened in 2016 and try to shape a left-of-center coalition that can win given American political realities.

It’s also a genuinely terrifying vision of what could happen to American liberalism if the Democratic coalition learns the wrong lessons from losing to Donald Trump.

The problem with Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic party in 2016, Beinart argues, is that they were way too pro-immigrant. They celebrated diversity rather than assimilation. They didn’t treat immigration as a threat to working-class prosperity. They didn’t emphasize rigorous enforcement at the border or call for big crackdowns on employers who employ undocumented immigrants. Beinart concludes with the requisite admonishment of silly campus leftists, chiding the University of California system for listing the phrase “melting pot” as a potential microaggression.

If only Hillary Clinton had gone to one of UC’s campuses, Beinart muses, "called that absurd," and "challenged elite universities to celebrate not merely multiculturalism and globalization but Americanness," then "Clinton would be president today."

It’s certainly interesting fan fiction, not least in that it implies that America’s most radical pro-immigration agitator is UC president Janet Napolitano, who dramatically ramped up deportations as Secretary of Homeland Security. The essay as a whole is similarly far-fetched and confused. Beinart appears to want to both make a policy argument that Democrats are mistaken to support mass immigration, and a political argument that they have to turn right on the issue to survive.

The piece conflates the two arguments at points, but they’re very different. One is an argument about the economic and cultural effects of immigration, about which Beinart is wrong. The other is an argument about what policies on immigration Americans are in fact demanding, about which Beinart is also wrong, but in a more interesting way.

There really is an economic consensus that immigration is good

Beinart’s policy argument is that liberals have given short-shrift to the costs of immigration, especially the economic ramifications. He’s mistaken. If anything, Democrats are too hesitant about noting the enormous economic benefits immigration brings to most Americans, and certainly to immigrants themselves.

Beinart gives readers a totally false sense of the state of research on immigration and its benefits. He focuses on a narrow academic debate over whether or not immigration modestly reduces wages for certain native-born high school dropouts — who are less than 8 percent of the total native-born population, and an even smaller portion of the working-age population — and not on the overwhelming academic consensus that the other 92.4 percent are held harmless or benefit from immigration, and that Americans gain overall.

Nor does he note that immigration appears to increase high school graduation rates among natives, further shrinking the number of people who might be negatively affected, or that that the biggest economic costs of immigration are borne by previous migrants — which makes sense, as they’re much more directly in competition with new immigrants than natives are.

Beinart portrays a National Academy of Sciences study on immigration as showing major costs to native workers, when the study actually concluded, “the impact of immigration on the wages of native-born workers overall is very small”; when the study came out, the New York Times’ Thomas Edsall correctly summarized, “the academy comes down decisively on the pro-immigration side of the debate.”

But Beinart’s political argument is disconnected from this narrative of immigration battering the working classes. He doesn’t argue that Democrats should turn against immigration because doing so helps native workers. He instead claims that they "must take seriously Americans’ yearning for social cohesion" and "dust off a concept many on the left currently hate: assimilation."

The idea that the US has gotten worse at assimilating new immigrants, though, is unfounded. The National Academies of Sciences study Beinart cites found “the rate of relative wage growth and English-language acquisition among the foreign-born is now slightly slower than it was for earlier immigrant waves” but that “the children of immigrants continue to pick up English-language skills very quickly.” “Slightly slower” — truly terrifying stuff!

Meanwhile, the NAS also conducted another review specifically focused on the evidence around immigrant integration, and concluded that there’s little reason to think that immigrants are integrating more poorly than they used to.

"They’re integrating as well as, or even faster, than immigrants who came from Europe in the last century," Harvard sociologist Mary Waters, who led the review, said in an interview with ThinkProgress’s Esther Yu Hsi Lee. "What we find overall — there’s a lot of details and caveats — but overall, the immigrants are rapidly assimilating into American society." Among the primary remaining barriers to integration are a lack of legal status for undocumented immigrants and racial prejudice against non-white immigrants.

Beinrt’s concern about public opinion more generally is also odd, given that Americans have become more pro-immigration, not less, in recent decades:

Immigration polling Gallup
Immigration increased/decreased Niskanen Center
Gallup/Pew immigrants burden or strengthen Niskanen Center

There’s no humane way to crack down on immigration

Let’s suppose for a second that Beinart is right, and this pro-immigration American public would nonetheless like Democrats to be less pro-immigration. For one thing, maybe this is a sincere desire of white voters without college degrees in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, who Democrats likely need to win over to retake the Senate and who remain important in the electoral college.

What policies should Democrats then champion? Here’s Beinart’s proposed agenda:

  • A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants
  • No guest-worker programs
  • Promoting English learning among immigrants
  • Tough enforcement of companies that hire undocumented immigrants

The first item is smart, and promoting English is benign enough, I suppose. The Gang of Eight immigration bill embraced by Democrats in 2013 would have made headway on both those goals: it offered undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, and to get permanent residency, they would have to demonstrate they’d learned English.

But the other two provisos are just code words for limiting immigration, period.

Calling for enforcement that punishes companies that hire undocumented immigrants, rather than the immigrants themselves, is a cruel sleight of hand. If you’re an undocumented immigrant working in a good job — maybe as a domestic care worker in a welcoming household, or for a compassionate boss at a restaurant — and your job gets taken away due to the enforcement of this provision, are you really being held harmless? Or is the government denying you your livelihood in service of upholding a manifestly unjust law?

Any realistic comprehensive immigration program gaining buy-in from business leaders is going to include an expansion of worker visas; the Gang of Eight bill included a provision called the “W-visa.” Guest worker plans tied to specific employers encourage abuses by bosses, which is why the W visa is not tethered to single employers. And to make sure these workers have the option to become more permanent members of their community, the W-visa would let them petition for permanent residency, addressing Beinart’s concerns about integration.

It’s a program that, if combined with vigorous enforcement of worker protection laws (as it should be), would enable thousands of foreign workers to earn two, three, four, even more times their earnings at home. It’s a significant blow against poverty for people in developing countries, not just for the workers themselves but also for any family members and others to whom they send remittances as well.

Being for equality means being for immigration

This is the point where you have to ask yourself what Beinart actually thinks the Democratic party is for. Personally, I think any center-left party worth its salt has to be deeply committed to egalitarianism, not just for people born in the US but for everyone.

That means fighting for LGBT rights against bathroom bills, fighting mass incarceration and police violence victimizing black Americans, and working for more domestic redistribution to address poverty and hardship, including through universal health care.

But it also means treating people born outside the US as equals. It means generously funding foreign aid for health programs that have saved hundreds of thousands, even millions of lives. And it means a strong presumption in favor of open immigration. Not only does migration help native workers overall, it enables a massive increase in the welfare of people abroad, typically people much poorer than even poor Americans, who come here. Recent research from economists Michael Clemens, Claudio Montenegro, and Lant Pritchett estimated that someone from Nigeria who moves to the US will be able to earn $16,611 more every year than they would at home. For Indian workers, the number is $14,317; Mexican workers, $10,523; Cambodian workers, $21,352.

These are massive, massive transfers to people far poorer than the American population. And they do not require new taxes. All they require is lessening the massive barriers to moving and working abroad that currently exist.

What kind of egalitarian would oppose that? And what is the point of a strategy for the center-left to win that means giving up on that goal?

Beinart argues that to continue on their current path, Democrats need to build a viable, durable coalition that supports efforts to “promote both mass immigration and greater economic redistribution.” I really, profoundly agree with that. For rich countries, accepting large numbers of immigrants is a basic obligation of justice, as is helping the poor at home, and left of center people need to be thinking hard about how to build an electoral and interest group coalition that can support both those goals. It’s not impossible but it’s not easy.

But Beinart doesn’t actually seem to care about promoting mass immigration. And that’s the one answer to this dilemma that’s completely unacceptable.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.