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Why Liberals Should Oppose the Immigration Bill

It's about low-wage American workers


The consensus among decent people in favor of the immigration bill making its way through Congress is so firm that expressing dissent feels a bit like taking the floor to suggest we chop down the Redwood National Park. People don’t want to hear it, and they also think you’re a nut. That makes this article one of the hardest I’ve ever had to write. It’s not that I’m afraid people will get angry; it’s that I can’t imagine anyone on my side (liberal) is open to persuasion. And, despite the vastness and complexity of the issue, I have to be brief: the Senate hopes to be done with things this week.

Sometimes, though, you just have to embrace futility.

The country I want for myself and future Americans is one that’s prosperous, cohesive, harmonious, wealthy in land and resources per capita, nurturing of its skilled citizens, and, most important, protective of its unskilled citizens, who deserve as much any other Americans to live in dignity. This bill threatens to put all of that out of reach, because it fails to control illegal immigration. The problem is not that it provides 11 million people eventual amnesty (I don’t object to that, in theory); the problem is that it sets in motion the next waves of millions. 

That is not a fashionable concern, of course. Worrying about illegal immigration today is a lot like worrying about communists in government in 1950.  It’s not that the problem isn’t legitimate or serious (there actually were, we now know, a lot of Moscow loyalists working for the U.S. government). It’s that expressing your concurrence links you to a lot of demagogues and bad actors. 

Most of America’s college-educated elites are little affected by illegal immigration. In fact, it’s often a benefit to us in terms of childcare, household help, dinners out, and other staples of upper-middle-class life. Many therefore view the problem as akin, in severity, to marijuana use—common but benign, helpful to the immigrants and minimal in its effects on Americans or anyone else. I know, because it used to be my own view.

There’s no short way to argue why I was misguided or explain how my views evolved. Oddly enough, an early important realization came to me in Hong Kong during the SARS crisis of 2003. I thought about how Hong Kong had created a flawed but remarkable city in which even low-skilled laborers such as these men and women, who were wearing masks and wiping down railings, lived far better than similar laborers on the other side of the border. I also realized that only a wall (and I didn’t much like walls) prevented millions of people on the People’s Republic of China side of the border from coming over to take these lowly jobs for a fraction of the current wage. (Hong Kong had no minimum wage at the time.) I knew I wouldn’t want these unskilled street cleaners to lose their adequate standard of living to such unbridled competition.

But if that was how I felt about protecting Hong Kong’s working class, why shouldn’t I feel that way about America’s?

Worldviews evolve slowly, of course. I read a lot research and studies. I familiarized myself with more of the literature: both immigration-skeptical work by people like Harvard’s George J. Borjas and Cornell’s Vernon Briggs and immigration-boosterish work by people like U.C. Berkeley’s David Card and U.C. Davis’s Giovanni Peri, to name a few. I read lots blogs and news stories. I started reporting on California and wrote articles that concerned immigration.  I came to believe that the boosters had many more vulnerabilities and flaws in their arguments than the skeptics. I found the theories of people like UCLA’s Ruth Milkman—who posits, for example, that illegal immigration had little to do with the decline of wages and working conditions in Los Angeles’s trucking, garment, and janitorial industries because “de-unionization…provokes native-born workers to abandon no-longer-desirable jobs, at which point immigrants then fill the vacancies”—to be unpersuasive.

I also noticed that a lot of immigration-boosterish studies—most of them, I’d say—contain telling caveats that undermine their case. For instance, buried on page 20 in Appendix Two” of this pro-legalization report touted by the Center For American Progress—trumpeted in a press release with the headline “How Immigration Reform Would Help the Economy”—is an estimate that if half of the current unauthorized labor force were deported the wage of a low-skill U.S. worker would rise by $399 a year. By contrast, legalization would raise that worker’s wage by less than half that much—and that’s assuming no further illegal immigration.   

All in all, I became convinced that high levels of low-skill immigration are good for wealthy Americans and bad for poor Americans.  Far more important, high levels of illegal immigration—when you start to get into the millions, as we have—undermines unions and labor standards, lowers wages, heightens social tensions, strains state budgets, widens income inequality, subverts the rule of law, and exacerbates class divides. The effects go far beyond wages, because few undocumented workers earn enough to cover anything close to the cost of government services (such as education for their children) they require, and those services are most important to low-income Americans. In short, it’s an immense blow to America’s working class and poor.

Most labor unions support the current legislation, of course, but few of them seem to acknowledge the possibility of a mass influx of a future illegal workforce.  In part, that’s because the SEIU and many other unions have thousands of undocumented members, and raising a fuss about enforcement or opposing the current bill would alienate their own members. It’s probably also that they believe, unrealistically, that the bill would be effective at controlling the border in the future.

And a lot of Democrats have also convinced themselves that even if there’s a wage loss to low-skilled workers, the massive new voting bloc of mostly left-leaning immigrants will ultimately help the little guy. But if millions of new Democratic voters oppose strict immigration control, then there will no Democratic support for meaningful immigration control. And generous social benefits cannot coexist with an open border.  (Nor can a more egalitarian society.)

I know that unauthorized immigrants are for the most part good, decent people. Deploring illegal immigration is not a condemnation of the immigrants themselves, anymore than deploring traffic is a condemnation of drivers. The rhetoric about hard workers trying to support their families is true, and in a perfect world we could invite everyone in without any tradeoffs. But the United States cannot take in millions upon millions of impoverished workers and hope to provide its own low-income citizens with lives of dignity or economic security.

Most of the enthusiastic endorsements I’ve read of the current Senate bill seem to assume that the problem of illegal immigration will be solved once the legislation is passed. (Chuck Schumer recently promised on the Senate floor, “illegal immigration will be a thing of the past,” a remarkable performance even by Schumer standards.) But the Congressional Budget Office projects no such thing. It sees only a 25 percent reduction in current levels.

That’s because, for all the ambitious measures listed on paper, the current bill grants near-immediate legalization in exchange for future enforcement.  That deal is okay, except that failure to enforce the law in the future would not lead to loss of legal status. In fact, the only penalty I can detect in the bill is that failure to secure the border in five years would lead to the creation of a “Border Commission” with the power to—make recommendations.  (If you care to see Marco Rubio’s defense of it, you can read it here and see if you’re convinced.) It is a large-scale replay of what we tried in 1986, when legalization was followed by lax enforcement and a much larger wave of unlawful migration. Enforcement capacity must be demonstrated before legalization is made permanent.

Enforcement of immigration law is not all that hard. Illegal immigration can never be reduced to zero, of course, but it can be brought down to levels that we had in the 1950s and 1960s, and with very little outright force.  There are plenty of means: enhanced fencing and patrolling at the southern border, E-Verify for all hiring, strict penalties for employers who hire illegally, a biometric entry/exit system, and punishment (and deportation) for entering the country illegally. Ron Unz of The American Conservative has proposed that a $12-an-hour minimum wage plus strict sanctions would greatly reduce the magnet of sweatshop employment. None of these methods could work singly, but used in concert they would bring illegal immigration down to negligible levels.  An analogy might be made to crime in Manhattan: it will never go to zero, but the rate has become so low as to cease to be alarming.

The trouble has always been political will. Every interest group has an argument against one enforcement mechanism or the other.  Farmers and small businesses and the SEIU oppose E-Verify as a “job killer;” the ACLU contends it has “enormous privacy and security risks.” Environmentalists oppose a border fence because of migrating wildlife, and the 2006 Secure Fence Act never led to completion on the ground.  Employer sanctions are unpopular with employers, who often are political donors and “job creators,” and plans in 1986 to start levying them never came to proper fruition. The biometric entry/exit system is “too expensive.” So we’ve historically compromised and done none of the above. That’s why all the “tough” measures being put into the current bill are simultaneously overblown and unserious. The Senate just voted to spend almost $40 billion on securing the southern border, when almost half of unauthorized immigrants are visa over-stayers. So why not spend a mere $5 billion to help roll out E-Verify?  Or $25 billion to implement a biometric entry/exit system?

Now politicians also seem to have become frightened of potential new voters. Calls to enforce the law, they fear, have come to be seen as anti-immigrant or xenophobic.  If that’s the state of affairs now, what is it likely to be when 11 million new beneficiaries of lax border enforcement and their families and descendants become voters? This is why the New York Times editorial page, back in 2000, when it was more cold-eyed on the subject, warned, “Illegal immigration of unskilled workers induced by another amnesty would make matters worse.”

If we intend to offer amnesty, however, we should at the very least place the burden of proof on those proposing to fix the problem. The way to do it is not by granting “provisional legal status” that can’t be revoked but, rather, by granting to all of today’s unauthorized immigrants what Obama has granted to those who were brought here as children: deferred action. Create a window of time—five or ten years—during which to implement all the current proposed border enforcement measures without any existing (non-criminal) residents having to fear penalties or deportation.  It would be a time-limited period of legalization equivalent to a temporary visa. If future illegal immigration is reduced to set agreed-upon levels (50,000 a year should be the high end), then Congress could vote to upgrade “deferred” immigrants to permanent legalization and allow them to commence a path to citizenship. If not, then they would revert to their present unauthorized status. There must be measurable benchmarks of results rather than absurd outlays, and genuine consequences must be attached to them.

Certainly, many people would resist this plan, but if so that is precisely because they know—or at least strongly suspect—that the enforcement measures in the current legislation are meaningless. So let’s make them meaningful instead.

If I have a plea to my fellow liberals more broadly, it’s that they focus more of their empathy on fellow Americans being left behind. Because we increasingly live in bubbles, many of us are at best only abstractly aware of how cruelly circumstances of unskilled Americans have deteriorated over the past few decades.  Even as these Americans have lost their well-paid manufacturing jobs, Washington has looked the other way while millions of low-skilled unauthorized immigrants have competed with them for low-skilled service jobs. The insouciance of privileged Americans toward the effects of this on life among less-privileged Americans is, in my view, a betrayal of citizenship. 

If we are to have any hope of regaining any control over our own immigration policy—which is to say, our destiny as a nation—then we must ensure that everyone has an incentive to follow the laws on who gets to be here and who does not.  Otherwise, we will shred the few remaining safety nets we have, and the dream of dignity for all American citizens will slip farther and farther, perhaps permanently, out of reach.  No matter how magnificently Chuck Schumer claims the contrary.

T.A. Frank, a frequent contributor to The New Republic, is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.