Fear, loathing and class warfare

U.S. immigration policy: "The worst of all possible worlds."

Published April 10, 2006 11:40PM (EDT)

The millions marching in the streets on Monday can only attract more viewers for a great new reality show: the spectacle of the left and the right tearing themselves apart in a frenzy of intramural bickering over illegal immigration. Where else can you see the editors of the Wall Street Journal lining up on the same side as one-worlders and multiculturalists? Or progressives getting into the same boat as Pat Buchanan? Illegal immigration is bringing out vigilantes and Marxists, free traders and isolationists, La Raza and the Ku Klux Klan. Looking for diversity? We got buckets full.

The first point of unexpected unity is the sudden concern from all points of the political spectrum for the plight of the native-born high school dropout. Conservatives who would normally be condemning the unsuccessful as not applying themselves enough in this great land of capitalist opportunity are suddenly citing, along with liberal and left-wing analysts, studies that show that illegal immigration has lowered wages for native-born high school dropouts by some 8 percent.

This has led to the amusing sight of David Frum pointing his guns in the National Review at the traditionally friendly confines of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. Give the Journal some credit -- on ideological grounds, it is staking out an absolutist free trade position: If we're going to let capital free to roam the world, then labor should roam free as well. Frum, however, wants his free-trade cake without any illegal immigrant icing, and ties himself into knots trying to prove that the benefits that accrue to the U.S. from free trade are far greater than society's gains from illegal immigrants. It's a dubious position to stake out: OK to hire the cheapest labor possible outside of U.S. borders, but not inside.

What's going on here? The Center for Immigration Studies, which describes itself as "animated by a pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision," offers a handy daily update on news coverage of immigration issues. Last Friday the center sent out a compilation of nearly 100 "opinions" on illegal immigration, the majority of which leaned to the right.

You don't have to dig very deep to find commentators who have concerns that go far beyond the competition posed by illegal immigrants to the working class. The real threat is not to high school dropouts, but to the "values" and "fabric" of America. And sovereignty! Under the cover of left-wing fifth-columnists chanting respect for multiculturalism and diversity, immigrants whose political loyalty is sworn to another flag are sneaking in, intent on a reconquest.

Or even worse, they are being imported to serve a left-wing welfare-state agenda! The loopiest analysis yet of illegal immigration comes from one Jennifer Roback Morse, on the Web site Town Hall. Morse says the Mexicans that she worships with on Sunday are "good, devout, family-oriented people." But once the Democrats, "the party of perjury, paganism and perversion," gets hold of them, "they won't be." Morse, whose bio says she is the "founder and chief visionary for Your Coach for the Culture Wars," says, "This is my fear about immigration: the continual importation of people who will be clients of the welfare state and the Democratic Party. If all we were dealing with were economics and jobs, we could find grounds for compromise. But under the tutelage of the Left, Hispanics are becoming 'assimilated' to the identity politics, and entitlement mentality that is so beloved by the Democratic Party and so obnoxious to taxpayers.")

The left, thankfully, isn't dressing up its opposition to illegal immigration in the moronic white-hood-and-robes of fears of the reconquista (whether by Aztlan Nation or the Democrats). For the left, opposition to illegal immigration is a matter of class warfare and economic nationalism. So much for international labor solidarity: Thom Hartmann on Common Dreams says immigrants should be forced back to their own countries, where they can demand their own welfare state from their own oppressive "oligarchic" rulers. Meanwhile, columnists like the Times' Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman cite the same papers as the right-wingers, but note that the real problem is that we aren't letting in the right kind of immigrants. In the interests of national competitiveness, we should be opening up the gates for highly skilled immigrants, and closing down the flow of the low-skilled, uneducated. (Never mind that American middle-class workers are just as opposed to allowing in more Indian programmers on H1B visas as lower-class workers are to competition from the south.)

Even as we look at this anti-illegal immigration gestalt forming across all classes and ideologies, save for the hardest-core free traders and the millions of immigrants themselves (not to mention those who still feel some affection for that old "give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free" definition of America), there are some hard facts to consider.

As Fareed Zakaria writes in the Washington Post, "The income gap between the United States and Mexico is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world," according to Stanford historian David Kennedy. And as Molly Ivins sensibly observes in "Immigration 101 for Beginners and Non-Texans," "The Fence will not work. No fence will work. The Great darn Wall of China will not work. Do not build a fence. It will not work. They will come anyway. Over, under or through ... Anyone who says a fence can fix this problem is a demagogue and an ass."

What will work? Or better yet, what will work and get the best bang for the buck? Some economists, like U.C. Berkeley's Brad DeLong, have pointed out that even if you concede that illegal immigration's costs to low-income native-born workers outweigh the benefits, spending billions trying to stop it may not be the most effective way to combat poverty in this country. It's very similar to the dilemma faced in coping with the pressures unleashed by globalization in general. Does one most effectively maintain living standards in the rich countries by imposing tariffs and attempting to insulate oneself from foreign competition, or by beefing up safety nets and education and infrastructure at home? As an editorial in the Washington Post noted, "Even a small impact on low-wage workers is alarming, given the rise of inequality over the past 25 years. But the question is whether to address that inequality by trying to stop immigration or to go at it via progressive taxation, larger public investments designed to prevent poor kids from dropping out of high school, or some other policy tool. Given the expense and doubtful effectiveness of border walls and employer crackdowns, progressive tax and social policies seem preferable. After all, to the extent that immigrants drive down wages at the bottom, they are driving up the inflation-adjusted wages of other Americans who get cheaper goods and services. Taxing the 'immigration windfall' that flows to better-off Americans and passing it on to the less fortunate may be the best way to go."

The U.S. is already spending billions and getting nowhere. In riveting testimony before Congress last October, Douglas Massey, a Princeton sociologist, laid out in stark terms how even though funding for Border Patrol enforcement has grown tenfold since 1986 (and currently stands at $1.4 billion a year), illegal immigration has not only grown dramatically, but it has also become more dangerous to the immigrants themselves. Ironically, its main success in limiting cross-border flows is in stopping migrants from returning to their countries.

"Our border policies have thus given us the worst of all possible worlds: continued immigration under terms that are disadvantageous to us, harmful to American workers, and injurious to the migrants themselves," said Massey. "This lamentable state of affairs stems from our failure to come to terms with the contradiction of continental integration under NAFTA. Rather than viewing Mexican migration as a pathological product of rampant poverty and unchecked population growth, we should see it as a natural product of economic development in a relatively wealthy country undergoing a rapid transition to low fertility. Mexico is presently a one trillion dollar economy with a per capita income approaching $10,000, 92 percent literacy, a total fertility rate of just 2.2 children per woman, and a population growth rate of just 1.2 percent per year. Rather than attempting to suppress the movement of workers back and forth across the border, we should bring the flows above board, legalize them, and manage them in ways that minimize the costs and maximize the benefits for all concerned, putting us in a better position to protect American workers, lower the costs of immigration to taxpayers, and enhance the security of our nation."

That's a tall order, but it seems here that the "debate" in immigration could use a little more of Massey's pragmatism. Mexico and the U.S. are linked by more than a common border. To borrow a little progressive sociological jargon, an increasingly "transnational" community exists in the United States and Mexico that scoffs at the lines drawn by either nation-state. It is not likely to be wished away or fenced off.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Immigration Immigration Reform Latin America Mexico Unemployment