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May 08, 2013 1:10 PM The Anti-Immigration-Reform Argument Without a Constituency

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • RaflW on May 08, 2013 1:33 PM:

    "People earn more than they otherwise might, just by the accident of being American."

    Hmmm. Maybe we also have a higher cost of living than most other nations, particularly those with low wages.

    There's also the little matter of American and international companies both paying crap wages and not generally caring about horrifying working conditions in places like Bangladesh.

    And finally, the reality is that the rich, the oligarchs are pushing fiercely on wages in the US while raking in all-time-record-smashing profits. Plain old meanness, in the British sense of the word, is largely at play in US wage issues. Not immigration.

  • Peter C on May 08, 2013 2:09 PM:

    I sure don't think much of Frum.

    From the link:
    “Yes, there are differences of detail: Democrats want a quick pathway to citizenship (so that formerly illegal residents can become voters faster); Republicans want a slower one. But compared to any other major issue before the country, the differences seem vanishingly small.”

    What a charming bit of slander. Yeah, Democrats are only looking to steal elections. Nice.

    “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.”

    More slander. It’s ‘unspoken’, but political leaders agree, do they? Any supporting evidence that they do? Nope.

    I don't want a mass of undocumented people who work for subsistence wages in unsafe conditions and who must remain silent because they'd face deportation if they speak out. I don't want 'guest workers' either. I think the people who live here should have a way to become citizens with the same rights and protections as the rest of us.

    I'd like them to be citizens and I think all citizens should vote, even the ones who empty the bedpans.

  • c u n d gulag on May 08, 2013 2:21 PM:

    With free trade, and a more global economy, there is NO incentive for ANY countries Oligarchs to pay their own people.

    We have a rush to abject poverty - akd: indentured servitude - all over the globe now, except in those countries with some vestiges of union power.

    Every, EVERY, country needs to start taxing it's richest citizens at 90% on their top income, and make banking transparent, so that there's no incentive for them to ship jobs overseas, or hide their money in 'safe havens.'

  • golack on May 08, 2013 7:04 PM:

    Curious...are the wages Frum refers to just the actual wages on line workers, or does it include executive compensation? With fewer workers, the ballooning salaries of the upper management are an increasing proportion of the "wage average". Wages are going up, just not for the workers.

    No, haven't had time to review the piece, but more analysis is needed.

  • smartalek on May 09, 2013 12:31 AM:

    "his accidental Republican allies in opposing immigration reform could hardly care less about its impact on low-wage workers."

    No, they couldn't.
    But that won't stop them from claiming that they do.
    And it won't stop Fox and the rest of the corporate media from quoting them on that without challenge, question, or context.
    And the feckless Dem's will once again make an unforced error, giving away a perfect opportunity to reclaim a significant slice of the middle and working-class electorate, especially the non-college white voters, the "Reagan Dem's," who should have been with us for the last 33 years, and look to remain with the Pubbies for at least another two or three.
    It's at the very least political malpractice of the highest order.
    At worst, it's another instance of outright betrayal.