Open borders or high-wage welfare state

Too many progressives are afraid to admit that secure borders are essential to a strong social safety net

Published May 4, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

Protesters gather to speak (Reuters)
Protesters gather to speak (Reuters)

Arizona's new immigration law has provoked a firestorm of denunciation from progressives. The portion of the law that allows police to stop and question individuals who might be illegal immigrants has rightly been denounced as encouraging racial profiling. That provision is all too reminiscent of "vagrancy" and "loitering" laws from the segregationist South, which gave law enforcement officers broad discretion in harassing and arresting blacks and low-income whites.

Unfortunately, many progressives have gone beyond denouncing the obnoxious component of the Arizona statute and the bigotry of many right-wing nativists who defend it to implying that enforcement of any federal immigration law is racist. In doing so, much of the progressive commentariat has demonstrated its distance, not only from the American public as a whole, but also from most Democratic and independent voters.

According to a Gallup poll of April 27-28, among Americans who had heard of the Arizona law, 51 percent supported it and 39 percent opposed it. Progressives should be troubled by the fact that, among those who had heard of the bill, a relatively narrow majority of Democrats -- 56 percent -- opposed it, while 50 percent of independents approved of it (compared to 39 percent who opposed it).

Gallup concludes: "Most Americans have heard about Arizona's tough new immigration law, and they generally support it." The support for the law probably indicates support for tough enforcement in general, not racial profiling. A Pew poll in 2009 found that 64 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of independents, and 83 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement, "We should restrict and control people coming to live in our country more than we do now."

Since the economy crashed in the fall of 2008, public attitudes toward immigration, both legal and illegal, have been hardening. Between 2008 and the summer of 2009, the number of respondents telling Gallup that immigration should be decreased shot up from 39 percent to 50 percent. While Republicans are more restrictionist than Democrats, pluralities of Democrats and independents favor decreases in immigration, including legal immigration. Forty-four percent of Democrats favor decreasing immigration, compared to 37 percent who want to keep it at present levels. Only a tiny 15 percent of Democrats want it increased. Here independent opinion tracks with Democratic opinion: 46 percent of independents want less immigration, and only 15 percent want more.

The mere 15 percent of Democrats who favor increased immigration make up the overwhelming majority of Democratic pundits, think tank operatives and other opinion leaders. Indeed, it appears that many prominent progressives are opposed to any enforcement of U.S. immigration laws at all.

Consider the editors of the Nation, in an editorial titled "Arizona Burning." The reference to the movie "Mississippi Burning," about the Ku Klux Klan in the Civil Rights era, shows the tendency of liberals to view immigration policy through the lens of anti-racism. The editors complain: "Not only has the White House delayed the push for immigration reform -- one of Obama's campaign promises -- its Department of Homeland Security continues to deputize police officers to enforce dysfunctional federal immigration policies, raid businesses and deport thousands of immigrants; this year it's on track to hit 400,000 deportations, the same as last year, exceeding the Bush administration's 2008 record."

Do the editors of the Nation want the U.S. to have any laws regulating entry by citizens of other countries into the U.S. or not? If so, then they have an obligation to explain the methods of law enforcement that they support. Enforcement requires two things: identification by the government of foreign nationals and U.S. employers who violate U.S. immigration laws, and penalties that are proportionate but sufficiently harsh to deter other foreign nationals and U.S. employers from attempting to break the laws in the future.

The key word is "employers." The most effective way to reduce illegal immigration is to dry up the demand for it by cracking down on sleazy employers who break U.S. labor and immigration laws. The need to identify scofflaw employers explains why the immigration reform commission appointed by President Clinton and headed by the late Barbara Jordan recommended turning the Social Security card into -- oh, the horror! -- a national ID. It is why the latest Senate immigration reform proposal, the Reid-Schumer-Menendez plan, calls for using biometric data to discourage fraud on the part of lawbreaking employers. Do progressives, the champions of federal government authority in other areas of labor law, really want to join the black-helicopter right in arguing that Barbara Jordan, Harry Reid and Charles Schumer have sought to turn America into a police state? Do liberals, by opposing workplace raids, really want to be on the side of meat-packing companies and union-busting janitorial firms that violate hard-won labor laws?

If progressives really believe that the U.S. should become the only sovereign country in the world that does not assert the right to regulate entry to its territory and participation in its labor markets, they should team up with the only other tiny sect in America that believes in open borders: right-wing libertarians. After all, calculating that a massive influx of poor workers would force wages down and destroy voter support for the welfare state, the late Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley periodically called for a constitutional amendment of five words: "There shall be open borders."

Some progressives have already bought into libertarian ideology on this subject. Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein recently wrote an approving review of a book by a right-wing libertarian, Jason L. Riley, titled "Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders." Klein expresses his agreement with the free-market right's dismissal of concerns about the effects of employment on wages: "To put it simply, if there were no Chinese immigrants, the result would not be Chinese restaurants staffed mainly by native Iowans. You wouldn't have many Chinese restaurants at all, and folks who like Chinese food would eat at home more often."

Klein's position on immigration in general seems to be guided by culinary considerations. In the center-left American Prospect, Klein writes that "I'm more concerned about industries where we're barely out-competing global competitors, like agriculture. As The New York Times wrote, if the migrants weren't coming over the border to pick strawberries, it would be the strawberries coming over the border instead. That would, to be sure, be better for Mexico, but it wouldn't be that good for the United States."

Does American prosperity depend, not on moving into high-value production along with the advanced technological societies of Asia and Europe, but on competing with third-world produce exporters on the basis of low-wage labor? Having identified a dangerous farmworker gap between the U.S. and Mexico, Klein echoes the agribusiness lobby in recommending a federal industrial policy in the form of immigration laws that generously provide U.S. agribusiness with poorly paid immigrant labor. Thanks to this de facto federal labor subsidy, agribusiness need not choose between investing in harvesting technology operated by well-paid workers or going out of business. Maybe the Border Patrol should focus on "the strawberries coming over the border instead."

One of the supreme achievements of American liberalism in the civil rights era was the abolition of the exploitative Bracero guest-worker program, at the insistence of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and the AFL-CIO. Klein joins conservatives in dismissing liberal objections to so-called guest worker (indentured servitude) programs, writing: "After all, the bottom fifth of this country never saw greater gains than in the immediate postwar period -- exactly the era when the Bracero guest worker program was in place."

In his enthusiastic review of Riley's open borders manifesto, Klein endorses the appalling libertarian argument that some native and naturalized citizens would suffer a loss in social status from a reduction of low-wage immigration: "Additionally, you'd have more native workers laboring for low wages at the bottom of the occupational ladder rather than being pushed up into management and supervisory roles, as happens now." Translation: Today there is such a glut of cheap labor that a non-Hispanic white who might have mowed lawns himself in the old days can now be a contractor, supervising a team of much poorer Latino immigrants. Klein's casual acceptance of a low-wage society, as long as it benefits professionals who don't want to pay much for Chinese takeout and natives who get jobs managing and supervising low-wage immigrants, is anything but liberal.

Nor is Klein finished recycling right-wing libertarian talking points: "As Riley persuasively argues, however, the positive effects of immigration on the wages of immigrants are huge." The mouthpieces of the corporate right make the same argument for outsourcing -- sure, it may hurt some American workers, but sweatshop employment helps the foreign poor much more! True anti-racism, these libertarians claim, means that you can't prefer the well-being of your own country's disadvantaged to the global poor who are longing for the poorly paid, non-unionized jobs that philanthropic multinational corporations generously bestow upon them.

It is surprising that any progressives are naive enough to fall for the insincere claim of conservatives and libertarians that their cheap-labor policies are motivated by altruistic concern for the foreign poor. The same conservatives and libertarians who claim to be defending poor Mexican immigrants and Chinese factory workers against overpaid, privileged American workers also claim that federal prevailing-wage laws for public contractors discriminate against blacks and that poor Americans are enslaved by "the welfare plantation." The faux-humanitarian arguments of the open-borders, cheap-labor right come as part of a larger policy package that genuine progressives should reject as a whole.

Conceding reluctantly that in some cases unskilled immigration might depress wages at the bottom of the income scale, Klein says that the answer is to raise taxes on Americans in order to pay for more welfare for the working poor: "[I]f your concern is really the conditions of the worst-off, there are much more direct ways to help them (universal health care would be a good start)." Elsewhere he proposes a higher earned income tax credit to make up for wages depressed by immigration. Klein never addresses the obvious question: Isn't his proposal a classic case of allowing the gains from low-wage immigration to be privatized by employers ("management and supervisory") and consumers ("folks who like Chinese food" and strawberries picked by poorly paid immigrants) while the cost is socialized and passed on to the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state? And isn't he giving ammunition to paranoid conservatives who claim that the agenda of liberal immigration policy really is to depress wages, raise taxes and expand welfare?

Unlike most prominent progressives, Paul Krugman recognizes that you can have a high-wage social democratic welfare state or you can have unlimited immigration -- but you can't have both. Krugman observes that "open immigration can't exist with a strong social safety net; if you're going to assure healthcare and a decent income to everyone, you can't make that offer global."

Krugman is right about that. He is mistaken, however, when he writes: "So Democrats have mixed feelings about immigration; in fact, it's an agonizing issue." Krugman may be agonized, but I see no evidence that many other leading progressive pundits are. Most refuse to acknowledge the trade-off.

Much of the left's opposition to immigration law enforcement, of course, is based on a strategic appeal to the Latino vote, not on a rational analysis of what sort of immigration policy best suits U.S. labor market conditions in the 21st century. If most Latinos began voting for Republicans, undoubtedly many Democrats who object to border and workplace enforcement would fall silent pretty quickly.

But there is more than ethnic politics at work. For some time the progressive intelligentsia has been drifting away from pro-labor egalitarianism toward libertarianism. The adoption by much of the center-left of the libertarian right's arguments against enforcing federal immigration laws, right down to the revolting comparison of American police officers and Border Patrol officers to the Gestapo, is only the latest example of the disturbing drift of center-left opinion leaders toward the market fundamentalist right. First the progressive establishment rejected regulation and public R&D for the Wall Street-friendly cap-and-trade system as the centerpiece of liberal environmentalism. Then, only a few months ago, the progressive position on healthcare was redefined by Beltway progressives to mean, not support for universal Medicare, but rather support for a "market-oriented" Democratic healthcare plan based on subsidies to corporations and bearing a striking resemblance to the right-wing Heritage Foundation's plan of the 1990s.

Some liberals and libertarians have discussed the possibility of a "liberaltarian" coalition. While the liberaltarians form a new fantasy-based community, dreaming of a utopian world without borders impeding the flow of labor, money or goods, reality-based egalitarian liberals in the New Deal/Great Society tradition can resume the project of creating a high-wage, social democratic nation-state inside America's well-policed borders -- even if it means that affluent metropolitan pundits must confront the heartbreaking choice of paying a little more at restaurants with well-paid workers or cooking at home. 

Michael Lind is policy director of the economic growth program at the New America Foundation and author of "Up From Conservatism: Why the Right Is Wrong for America."

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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