A piece of advice for progressives trying to figure out where they stand on immigration reform: It’s the political economy, stupid. Analysing the direct economic gains and losses from proposed reform isn’t enough. You also have to think about how the reform would affect the future political environment. To see what I mean—and why the proposed immigration Bill, despite good intentions, could well make things worse—let’s take a look back at America’s last era of mass immigration.
My own grandparents came to this country during that era, which ended with the imposition of severe immigration restrictions in the 1920s. And today’s would-be immigrants are just as deserving as Emma Lazarus’ “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”. Moreover, as supporters of immigrant rights rightly remind us, everything today’s immigrant-bashers say—that immigrants are insufficiently skilled, that they’re too culturally alien and, implied, though rarely stated explicitly, that they’re not white enough—was said a century ago about Italians, Poles and Jews. Yet, then as now, there were some good reasons to be concerned about the effects of immigration. There’s a highly technical controversy going on among economists about the effects of recent immigration on wages. However, as that dispute turns out, it’s clear that the earlier wave of immigration increased inequality and depressed the wages of the less skilled. For example, a recent study by Jeffrey Williamson, a Harvard economic historian, suggests that in 1913, the real wages of unskilled US workers were around 10% lower than they would have been without mass immigration. But the straight economics was the least of it. Much more important was the way immigration diluted democracy.
In 1910, almost 14% of voting-age males in the US were non-naturalized immigrants. (Women didn’t get the vote until 1920.) Add in the disenfranchised blacks of the Jim Crow South, and what you had in America was a sort of minor-key apartheid system, with about a quarter of the population denied any political voice.
That dilution of democracy helped prevent any effective response to the excesses and injustices of the Gilded Age, as those who might have demanded that politicians support labour rights, progressive taxation and a basic social safety net that didn’t have the right to vote.
Conversely, the restrictions on immigration imposed in the 1920s had the unintended effect of paving the way for the New Deal and sustaining its achievements, by creating a fully enfranchised working class.
But now we’re living in the second Gilded Age. And as before, one of the things making anti-worker, unequalizing policies politically possible is the fact that millions of the worst-paid workers in this country can’t vote. What progressives should care about, above all, is that immigration reform stop our drift into a new system of de facto apartheid.
Now, the proposed immigration reform does the right thing in principle by creating a path to citizenship for those already here. But the Bill creates a path so tortuous that most immigrants probably won’t even try to legalize themselves. Meanwhile, the Bill creates a guest worker programme, which is exactly what we don’t want to do.
Yes, it would raise the income of the guest workers themselves, and in narrow financial terms guest workers are a good deal for the host nation—because they don’t bring their families, they impose few costs on taxpayers. But it formally creates exactly the kind of apartheid system we want to avoid.
Progressive supporters of the proposed Bill defend the guest worker programme as a necessary evil, the price that must be paid for business support. Right now, however, the price looks too high and the reward too small: This Bill could all too easily end up actually expanding the class of disenfranchised workers.