While the presidential contest between the eventual Democratic nominee and John McCain promises a political debate rich in contrasts, we will hear not one meaningful word of debate over what may be the most interesting and pervasive domestic policy challenge of our time: immigration.
In a nation of roughly 300 million, close to 40 million of us are immigrants. Of those, somewhere between a third and half are here illegally, though estimates vary greatly.
For the sake of this discussion, however, the difference between legal and illegal matters not one iota. Because when it comes to immigration, legal status has much more relevance to the immigrant than it does to everyone else.
On the issue of immigration, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and McCain are virtual clones. All three support liberalizing our already liberal immigration rules. All three support some kind of easy-to-achieve legal status for people who are in the country illegally. All three would impose some modest increases in spending on border security and employment status verification, measures that are regarded as sops to national security hawks.
But for the most part, no matter who wins this election, immigrants and would-be immigrants will celebrate — and rightly so.
Is this rare example of bipartisanship a good thing? Many readers of this newspaper, rooted deeply in the aspirational culture of immigrant Jewry, will likely think so. Jews are commanded by Torah to welcome the stranger, and we know from painful experience what it means to be turned away at an hour of desperation.
These principles are not irrational or ill-conceived. The problem is, they are utterly inconsistent with the other elements of our aspirational culture — especially the one that says that the immigrant should move up the ladder of opportunity.
If you believe the gap between the wealthy and the poor is an outrage, that there should be far more opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities, that Americans should not exit the workforce because jobs pay too little — if you believe all this, you cannot at the same time support further immigration to this country. These problems are all symptoms of the same disease: an oversupply of cheap, uneducated workers.
It is not xenophobic or nativist to point this out. It’s simple economics.
Consider: Economic conservatives embrace liberal immigration precisely because it provides cheap and easily available labor. They may declare some sentimental regard for the pluck of immigrants. But economic conservatives are no fools; they love any market mechanism that stands on the side of greater efficiency in pricing. In this case, if American workers get too uppity, bring in the foreigners to make goods and services cheaper.
Today’s labor Zionists may be surprised to find themselves in the same ideological bed with the kind of people who used to exploit their grandparents — but that’s where things stand.
Immigration can’t be simultaneously good for both the employer and the immigrant. Someone is paying the bill. And as it turns out, the bill is being paid by the people liberals say they are defending: the poor, the uneducated, the weak and the defenseless.
We receive roughly 2.5 million immigrants each year to this country. Except for a few thousand, virtually all of these immigrants are here for economic reasons. They need to earn more money than they would in their home countries.
And that they do. They have entered our workforce in massive numbers. From 2000 to 2005, virtually nine out of every 10 new workers in the American labor force were immigrants in that period, according to the government’s population survey.
But this influx has had another impact. The number of American-born workers who don’t even look for a job jumped by 10 million from 2000 to 2007, according to the Labor Department. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that favors a more restrictive immigration policy, the workforce dropout rate has risen among a number of major demographic groups: young American-born men, American-born black men, American-born Hispanic men, American-born adults who didn’t graduate from high school, and American-born adults with only a high school degree.
Who can blame them? Wages have indeed suffered, in real terms, because of immigration — by about $1,700, or 4%, between 1980 and 2000, according to Harvard economist George Borjas.
And here’s the thing: No matter what people tell you about immigrants doing work “Americans won’t do,” most of the jobs immigrants are now entering are in fact still dominated by American-born workers: maids, construction laborers, dishwashers, janitors, painters, cabbies, grounds keepers, and meat and poultry workers.
If we continue to keep up our immigration policies, we will begin to see a massive shift in the workforce — in fact, one that has already begun — where those who are educated enjoy the twin luxuries of high relative wages and low relative prices. Those not so lucky or blessed or motivated, depending on your theology, will suffer grinding subsistence.
Those who come to this country eager to improve their lot, in short, will move exactly one rung on the economic ladder before being pulled back by those who follow behind them. Meanwhile, millions of able-bodied adults now sit on the sidelines of our economy, preferring the stable though not prosperous lifestyle of disability payments and other social welfare to the rough-and-tumble of the low-wage, low-skilled working world.
I don’t blame them for their choice. It is rational. It is also sad — and it speaks poorly of a country that prides itself on opportunity that the only leg up we give is to those willing to work here for cheap, and preferably, off-the-books.
Today’s suburban liberals, grandchildren of immigrants themselves, should be howling in protest. They should call out immigration as an unnatural drag on the well-being of ordinary, hard-working Americans. Forget Big Oil, Big Pharma and any other Bigs. The true enemy of the working man is Big Immigration.
The awareness of this problem won’t come in the national debate about our next White House occupant. Those candidates have already staked their positions, and they are indistinguishable. But the lover of labor cannot hide from the truth that the solution begins with a wall — and a polite policy that says no more new immigrants, not until we restore opportunity for all at home.
Noam Neusner served as President Bush’s principal economic and domestic policy speechwriter from 2002 to 2004.