Two cheers for immigration: why there’s good reason for progressive ambivalence about reform

Right now, the prospects of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) bill currently before Congress are looking cloudy at best. As Dave Weigel explains here, many Republicans have done the electoral math, and believe, not without reason, that opposing immigration bill is in their interest, at least over the short term.

Arguments opposing immigration reform from the xenophobic Tea Party right are common. What you hear surprisingly little of these days is any degree of skepticism whatsoever about immigration reform coming from the left. That’s one reason why T.A. Frank’s thoughtful TNR essay about why he, a liberal, opposes CIR is welcome. For Frank, a contributing editor here at the WaMo, the reason he’s against the bill is simple: it’s about low-wage workers:

The country I want for myself and future Americans is one that’s prosperous, cohesive, harmonious, wealthy in land and resources per capita, nurturing of its skilled citizens, and, most important, protective of its unskilled citizens, who deserve as much any other Americans to live in dignity. This bill threatens to put all of that out of reach, because it fails to control illegal immigration. The problem is not that it provides 11 million people eventual amnesty (I don’t object to that, in theory); the problem is that it sets in motion the next waves of millions.

The elite consensus in favor of immigration reform is near universal. But as Frank points out, that is because the impact of immigration on the economically comfortable is overwhelmingly positive:

Most of America’s college-educated elites are little affected by illegal immigration. In fact, it’s often a benefit to us in terms of childcare, household help, dinners out, and other staples of upper-middle-class life. Many therefore view the problem as akin, in severity, to marijuana use—common but benign, helpful to the immigrants and minimal in its effects on Americans or anyone else. I know, because it used to be my own view.

Frank opposes the bill mainly because he believes, correctly in my view, that it will encourage illegal immigration. And it’s the illegal immigration that is the crux of the matter here:

All in all, I became convinced that high levels of low-skill immigration are good for wealthy Americans and bad for poor Americans. Far more important, high levels of illegal immigration—when you start to get into the millions, as we have—undermines unions and labor standards, lowers wages, heightens social tensions, strains state budgets, widens income inequality, subverts the rule of law, and exacerbates class divides. The effects go far beyond wages, because few undocumented workers earn enough to cover anything close to the cost of government services (such as education for their children) they require, and those services are most important to low-income Americans. In short, it’s an immense blow to America’s working class and poor.

This is an important point. Though there is some disagreement among economists about the impact of immigration on wages, I think Jared Bernstein’s summary gets it right:

Most contemporary research finds that immigrants don’t place significant downward pressure on the wages of domestic workers because they’re more often complements than substitutes. But, and here’s where the WSJ is especially off, when they are substitutes (i.e., domestic workers or recent immigrants with low skills) the wage effects from immigrant competition are significant and negative.

Now you may believe, as I do, that bringing low skill, undocumented immigrants “out the shadows” by offering a path to citizenship will increase their wages by increasing their bargaining power in the labor market. Since this group of workers doesn’t have to deal with the threat, implicit or explicit, that their employer will turn them in to immigration authorities, their position is strengthened. And if wages go up for this group, then theoretically this would drive up wages for native born low-skill workers as well. So far so good, right?

The problem with immigration reform, though, is that it will send a strong, encouraging signal to potential immigrants that even if they come here illegally, if they wait long enough they, too, will be granted a path to citizenship. And an increase in the flow of undocumented immigrants would likely bring down wages for low-skill workers overall, native-born and foreign-born alike..

Now, there are some objections to this line of argument. Frank notes, for example, that the CBO estimates that immigration reform would reduce the flow of illegal immigrants, but I find that hard to believe. As he and others have also pointed out that beefing up enforcement mechanisms could also substantially reduce the flow of undocumenteds. Liberals tend to like the idea of cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers. And to discourage the sweatshops that thrive on illegal immigration, and to ease some of the negative distributional impact of reform on low-skill workers, Ron Unz has suggested raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour.

Great idea! And while we’re at it, can we turn the air into chocolate?

My point is that even if immigration reform passes, we’re going to get, not the most perfectly perfect version of immigration reform that my beautiful mind can envision, but whatever survives the ungodly sausage-making legislative process. Alas, this is a process over which right-wing Republicans wield considerable power. What’s on the table already has some fairly noxious elements in it, like tens of thousands more border guards and provisions for more low-skill, highly exploitable guest workers and, for certain preferred companies, the expansion of visas for high-tech workers.

Ultimately, though, I come down strongly on the side of immigration reform. Reform would bring about a gigantic, life-changing improvement in the lives of some 11 million people. They will no longer have to live every day with the heartrending fear that the law could rip their families apart,. They’d also be able to enjoy the dignity and empowerment that legal status would bring.

Another important consideration is that the politics of the law, especially over the long term, will be a boon to progressives, in the same way that the last major immigration reform initiative in 1986 turned out to be. The millions of largely Latino new voters that CIR will enfranchise lean strongly Democratic. And as I’ve previously noted, even if the GOP comes around on immigration reform, they are unlikely to attract many Latino voters. Latinos lean left on most issues to begin with, and they won’t soon forget the obnoxious racism and xenophobia that so many of today’s conservatives seem to revel in.

In the end, though I disagree with T.A. Frank’s conclusion, I appreciate the important points he raises. Contrary to the facile arguments proffered by many elites, immigration reform is hardly win-win. Native-born low-wage workers are likely to be hurt by it to some degree. I’ll conclude by quoting this eloquent paragraph from Frank’s piece, which I couldn’t agree with more strongly:

If I have a plea to my fellow liberals more broadly, it’s that they focus more of their empathy on fellow Americans being left behind. Because we increasingly live in bubbles, many of us are at best only abstractly aware of how cruelly circumstances of unskilled Americans have deteriorated over the past few decades. Even as these Americans have lost their well-paid manufacturing jobs, Washington has looked the other way while millions of low-skilled unauthorized immigrants have competed with them for low-skilled service jobs. The insouciance of privileged Americans toward the effects of this on life among less-privileged Americans is, in my view, a betrayal of citizenship.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee