MEMO TO: Democratic Party Members and Progressives
RE: Immigration Reform and Progressive Populism
FROM: Michael Lind
“I know why [immigrants] are here. There are a lot of jobs people in Texas won’t do, [such as] laying tar in August.”
—Texas Gov. George W. Bush, 1997
The late GOP political strategist Lee Atwater once said that the populist vote is the key to building a political majority, and he was right. Republicans controlled the White House in the 1980s, and won the House and Senate in the 1990s, by following Atwater’s advice and appealing to populists with culture-war demagoguery and tax-cut rhetoric. But the GOP’s grip is loosening, and the political contests brewing over free trade and tax reform could be the start of a prolonged, pitched battle between Republicans and Democrats for the populist vote.
The left’s best hope for capturing it is to hammer away at economic issues. But conservative propaganda has poisoned the well when it comes to that old progressive standby, increased entitlement spending. Many working- and middle-class voters would rather lose government benefits than pay higher taxes that go to the poor. And the fight against free trade, which has sparked a strong center-left coalition, isn’t likely to set the saloons on fire either. In the 21st century, most low- and middle-income jobs will be found in nontraded service sectors like health care, construction, janitorial services, and retail—in other words, jobs that don’t risk being lost to workers overseas.
But there is one pocketbook issue capable of bringing populists over to the progressive camp, and it is ripe for the picking. Without raising taxes or spending, a progressive government can increase the wages of low- and middle-income Americans by reducing immigration.
In a classic example of bait-and-switch politics, the Republican Party has cleverly bought off right-wing populists with calls to fortify the border and penalize undocumented immigrant workers. But while Republican leaders—such as California Gov. Pete Wilson—viciously lash out at illegal immigrants, they are usually silent about legal immigration. New York City’s Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani has actually refused to cooperate with federal laws governing immigration control. Indeed, supported by Bill Gates and other industrialists seeking cheap labor, some Republican politicians claim that the current rate of legal immigration is too low. What’s going on here? The crypto-racist histrionics of some of his colleagues aside, Gov. Bush’s remark about needing cheap labor to lay tar accurately sums up the rationale behind his party’s approach to immigration.
Republicans may be able to get away with speaking out of both sides of their mouths, appealing to the nativist impulses of the working class while satisfying big business’ need for cheap labor. But progressives must stand, first and foremost, for the economic interests of the struggling middle class, the working poor, and the unemployed. The unpleasant truth is that the present rate of legal immigration has been a boon to employers—and a disaster for low-income workers. It is time for progressives to take the issue back from Republicans and advocate an immigration policy that keeps the interests of the working class, not the business class, in mind. By demanding equal rights for legal immigrants, humane treatment for undocumented ones, and continued legal immigration at reduced levels, progressives can oppose mass immigration without being perceived as anti-immigrant—or even anti-immigration. Lower rates of immigration would reduce middle-class taxes and raise working-class wages. And the costs of immigration reduction would fall chiefly on the professionals, corporate executives, and investors who have benefited for a generation from an ever growing pool of cheap immigrant labor. Consider the following:
If current immigration levels persist, working people can look forward to overcrowded cities, depleted watersheds, paved farmland, low wages, decimated unions, happy agribusiness CEOs, and rich people enjoying a buyer’s market in maids, gardeners, and nannies. Yet the Democratic Party elite either has been silent about the issue or has opposed immigration reform. Why?
Many progressives have a romantic attachment to the notion that the United States is a “nation of immigrants.” But where is it written on the Statue of Liberty that legal immigration must be maintained at 1 million each year, instead of 500,000 or 250,000? As long as we don’t have open borders, the number of immigrants we let in annually will be somewhat arbitrary; shouldn’t we fight to make that number more compatible with the interests of labor than those of business?
Another significant reason that progressives remain silent on immigration reform is that the issue is almost inextricably bound up with race. Many recoil at the notion of reducing immigration levels, equating attempts to do so with attacks on the rights of Latino or Asian immigrants.
But it is a mistake to think that minorities uniformly support high rates of immigration. In the 1990 Latino National Political Survey, approximately 75 percent of Mexican Americans, 66 percent of Cuban Americans, and almost 80 percent of Puerto Ricans agreed with the following statement: “There are too many immigrants coming to this country.” In 1994, before the anti-Latino overtones of California’s Proposition 187 campaign to deny certain state benefits to illegal immigrants were widely publicized, 52 percent of California’s Latino voters favored the measure, according to a Los Angeles Times poll. A 1996 survey showed that 59 percent of Latino citizens in Texas supported cuts in immigration, while only 30 percent opposed them. The same survey showed similar preferences among Latino citizens in California, Florida, and New York.
Many African American leaders have been AWOL on the subject of immigration reform as well, even though high immigration has hit black workers the hardest. In Los Angeles, for example, the abundance of nonunion immigrants permitted unscrupulous firms to wipe out unionized janitors—half of whom were black—by the 1990s.
What would a progressive-populist campaign for immigration reform look like? For starters, progressives can borrow a line from Bill Clinton: Immigration should not be ended—but it must be mended. And the best way to do that is to implement the recommendations of the Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by the late Barbara Jordan, a humanitarian and progressive of impeccable pedigree. Appointed by President Clinton in 1993, the Jordan Commission called for reducing legal immigration to 550,000 a year (in addition to humanitarian refugees); limiting those admitted into the country for purposes of family reunification to nuclear family members (spouses and young children), rather than siblings and adult children; and using Social Security numbers to verify the citizen status of employees.
Progressives who campaign on immigration reform should stress that they do not object to the particular culture of immigrants, only to the volume of immigration. If most low-wage immigrants came from the poor nations of post-communist Eastern Europe, rather than from Latin America and Asia, the damage done to the American labor market would be the same.
As long as the issue is framed in economic terms, a progressive-populist coalition for immigration reform can hope to gain the support of many Latino and Asian American wage earners, immigrant as well as native born. A tighter labor market would even help recent immigrants; we shouldn’t assume that people who migrate to the U.S. want to be followed by others who might undercut their own precarious position. In fact, Cesar Chavez horrified sentimental liberals by endorsing government crackdowns on Southwestern agribusinesses that employed illegal immigrants.
Progressives should define the problem as too much legal immigration for the good of America’s workforce and environment. The number of legal immigrants should be reduced—but the rights of both legal and undocumented immigrants should be protected (and in some cases restored). We should oppose right-wing schemes to create a Berlin Wall along the Southwestern border, and support an immigration policy that shifts the focus from hounding the illegals to punishing the employers who pay them miserable wages.
While working to reduce the overall rate of immigration, progressives should campaign for workfare programs that move the poor of all races and ethnicities into the private-sector jobs opened up by the dwindling supply of foreign-born workers. Participants in welfare-to-work programs would be natural recruits for a reinvigorated union movement. And vigorous unions could ensure that the minimal-wage jobs with no benefits that are currently done, usually off-the-books, by nonunion immigrants—maid service, laundry service, construction, and restaurant work—will be performed tomorrow by union members working under decent conditions.
Immigration reform is the best hope for a swift improvement in the wages and bargaining power of working Americans. It doesn’t make sense to oppose trade agreements, which harm relatively few U.S. workers, while ignoring the mass immigration that threatens the economic security of a far greater number of Americans. The energy that goes into fighting fast-track legislation and the World Trade Organization would be better spent on a push to implement the recommendations of the Jordan Commission. Instead of wasting their energy on quixotic campaigns against sweatshops in remote countries, progressives should focus on the pro-business immigration system that permits the proliferation of sweatshops down the street.
Michael Lind is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Harper’s Magazine. This is the last in a series of four articles on democratic political reform in the United States.