The Anti-Immigration-Reform Argument Without a Constituency

As we enter another tedious if quite important debate over the merits and structure of comprehensive immigration reform, it’s interesting that amongst the nativists and Tea Partiers opposing reform we find “conservative reformer” David Frum, who is making the rare argument that legitimizing higher immigration levels will exacerbate income inequality for poorer Americans. Indeed, his basic case is as much left-wing as right-wing populist:

For most Americans, the dominant economic fact of the past 15 years has been the deteriorating market for their labor. They must work longer and harder for less pay and fewer benefits. And since the financial crisis of 2008, many have found it difficult to get work at all. Unemployment still exceeds 7 percent even as we approach the fifth anniversary of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy; nearly half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed….

Yet from the point of view of some Americans, labor remains too costly. American wages—although no longer anything like the highest in the world—remain considerably higher than elsewhere on the planet, even after adjusting for productivity differentials. People earn more than they otherwise might, just by the accident of being American.

The great unspoken question in the immigration debate is whether this “living in America” wage premium is a benefit to be cherished or a problem to be overcome. To a startling extent, political leaders agree: the wage premium is a problem—and immigration is the answer.

This is an argument that used to be heard often in labor movement circles. But with labor largely on board (at least so long as the legislation doesn’t tilt, as House Republicans want it to, towards a vast “guest worker” program that creates competition for jobs without enabling the new competitors as citizens and potential union members), you aren’t hearing it much this year.

Unfortunately for Frum, you aren’t hearing it from many Republicans, either. The “conservative base” argument against immigration reform may well ultimately rest on racism or fears the country is changing in ways that deeply disturb older white folk, particularly in areas where the widespread appearance of Latinos is recent and (to them) dramatic. But on the surface level, it’s all about the “scandal” of “amnesty,” which is why the line in the sand that House conservatives are drawing is less about total levels of immigration or even of legalization, but about the “path to citizenship.” I’m guessing that most conservative “immigration reform opponents” would be very happy with an outcome that created many millions of “guest workers” instead of many millions of potential new citizens. That, too, would satisfy key elements of the business community, precisely because it would help keep downward pressure on wages without the unfortunate byproduct of generating more Democratic votes or union memberships. But such a tack would, they know, unravel support for immigration reform, so they’ll take the whole hog and support a path to citizenship.

The bottom line is that there’s no longer much of a constituency for Frum’s point of view, and his accidental Republican allies in opposing immigration reform could hardly case less about its impact on low-wage workers.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.