What the Left Wants for Immigration Policy Or: Don’t Let Racists Set the Agenda

My best friend and I are pretty different—politically, theologically, and culturally. Had we not known each other since high school, we’d probably not have run into each other. But because we do know each other so well, we get to ask each other difficult political questions from across this wide and growing chasm that defines US political life today. Then, we can give earnest answers in a context of mutual trust and respect.

Leveraging this relationship, she opened a dialog around immigration policy—for my money, today’s touchiest political issue.

She had found a study by a thinktank (more on them later) that examined immigrant use of public benefits, and (being a fiscal conservative) she wanted to know how she could approach this topic without being accused of racism. Isn’t there a limit to how much we should support people who aren’t even from here? Shouldn’t we be working harder to care for our current under-privileged as a higher priority? (She sincerely means that latter part. Again: context of mutual trust and respect.)

And what does the left actually want our immigration policy to look like? No wall, no separating families (she agrees on both counts), but what do we affirmatively support?

What follows is an edited version of my response. I answered the “what do you want” question last with my friend, but I’ve put it first here, and you’ll see more about why I did that below.

  I.      What immigration policy does “The Left” want?

Well, that depends on whom you ask, because there is no “the left” that speaks with one voice. (In contrast, Fox & Friends is practically dictating national policy at this point.)

Are there leftists who want no borders or want to move in that direction? Sure. You know what other wing of public intellectuals often pushes for this? Libertarians. Pure laissez faire requires not only the free movement of capital and goods, but also people.

Most leftists don’t want truly unlimited immigration (no border, no screening, etc.), though many of us would support background checks, border inspections, an orderly immigration system, and little more.

A tick to the center from this position, I think the bulk of the institutional left and lefty intellectuals like me would probably be willing to sign on to something like the following:

A.    Official recognition of everyone who’s built a life here for a substantial period of time, without running into the criminal justice system.

That means legal residency, a path to citizenship, and all the protections that come with it such as minimum wage, workplace protections, and the ability to file a police report when you’re the victim or witness of a crime.

Imagine living with none of that. Even if you came here as an adult, that’s a pretty raw deal from a country built by immigrants. If you came here as a kid—if you have to live under these terms, in the only country you know as home—that’s unconscionable.

B.    Larger and more rational allowances for legal immigrants.

Family ties are a pretty legitimate factor in deciding who gets here, but so is economic demand for services—and not just in the professional classes. Unskilled migrants come here because there’s work for them to do, and any policy that tries to ignore this reality is just misguided. In terms of skilled labor, some sectors are positively starving for talent.

I’ve personally known people who earned US graduate degrees and were then told they had to leave after their student visas ran out. Selfishly, we should be trying to keep these people! And in high-demand specialties, there’s no way we can produce enough local talent to meet the demand.

Our immigration quotas are set too low.

Imagine a stretch of interstate where the speed limit were suddenly reduced to 30 mph. Is the problem that people would still go 75 (or drive like maniacs on the side streets to compensate), or that the speed limit is far too low? Laws aren’t inherently right or moral just by virtue of being the law. They should be rational and tethered to the actual needs of the community. They should punish the dangerously deviant, not the ordinary. In sectors like farming and construction, undocumented labor is awfully ordinary (akin to driving 75 anyway). In sectors where undocumented work isn’t feasible, jobs are just sitting unfilled, and the side-street-like workarounds like outsourcing aren’t helping us, either.

Apply the paradigm of setting speed limits to the question of immigration volume. Not unlimited, but basically enough to do the job so that illegal immigration isn’t generally necessary. This could bake in a bit of give and take as local supply and demand evolves for specific occupations. It could also allow families to reunite in the open, but at a moderate enough pace to allow local infrastructure to evolve accordingly.

Then, think about the resources this frees up! Imagine if the INS, ICE, and DHS more broadly could focus more squarely on stopping human and drug trafficking and keeping out convicted criminals. Imagine these agencies providing humanizing and helpful services to otherwise law-abiding would-be residents.

That would do far more to promote the safety and well-being of our nation than the vast majority of enforcement activities today.

C.    Border policy that’s actually based on security needs and rational analysis of empirical evidence.

The wall is a joke. Every dollar spent on the wall is many times too expensive relative to other ways to get the same level of increased enforcement. Most of the border is just unpopulated desert, and for the parts where fencing makes sense, there are generally fences already—and they tend to be in poor repair. A wall would still need to be patrolled, maintained, and repaired. Everyone who’s studied this seriously—and even Republicans elected from border regions—tends to conclude that a wall is a terrible use of resources. Invest more money elsewhere.

Or actually don’t, because unauthorized immigration is at its lowest level in ten years. This whole “crisis” is so manufactured it might as well say “Hasbro” on the bottom. The only thing that’s changed is the political rhetoric.

Sure, we could definitely use updating and repair of some of the physical plant we already have. To the extent that outdated or worn-out gates, bridges, offices, and so on slow down commerce? That’s a real problem. As far as ramping up enforcement to save lives, though? Our safety would be more quickly improved by investing in infrastructure that has nothing to do with the border—crumbling bridges, post-apocalyptic roads, and so on.

D.    Deflate and challenge the racial views and assumptions that animate this whole debate.

The truth is that we need immigrants. Overall, our country’s native population isn’t even reproducing at replacement level. Without immigration, Japan’s grey-haired present is our future. That’s not a good thing, fiscally speaking.

Want to talk about an expensive group to keep on the dole? Let’s talk about retirees! Boomers on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are going to be FAR more expensive than the subset of immigrant children on SNAP, free school meals, and state healthcare. And as Boomers continue to retire, we’re approaching an era where, without a continued influx of working-age adults being part of the legal economy (including Social Security and Medicare taxes), our budget is toast.

Even on a static basis, the only credible answer to “Is immigration a net negative or positive?” is, “Depends on how you measure, but close to break-even overall.” This is true even for measures that we imagine would be highly sensitive to unskilled immigration, like wages among high-school dropouts.

But on a dynamic/prospective basis, the more today’s immigrant kids can join the successful working population of tomorrow, the better off we’ll be.

There is little rational reason to fear immigration—and I’ll tackle the irrational sources of fear in a second. But there are studies and statistics thrown out to justify anti-immigrant positions. Let’s look at one example of how this can work.

II.      Don’t take “the numbers” as a given. Read statistics skeptically.

My friend started the discussion with a link to a study (which I will not directly link here). The author claims that immigrant households use public assistance at a higher rate than native-born households.

Authored by the Center for Immigration Studies, the study is just methodologically wrong, but we shouldn’t find this that surprising. To say that CIS has an axe to grind is, um, an understatement. By 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center had designated them a hate group. They explain:

Founded in 1985 by John Tanton, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has gone on to become the go-to think tank for the anti-immigrant movement with its reports and staffers often cited by media and anti-immigrant politicians. CIS’s much-touted tagline is “low immigration, pro-immigrant,” but the organization has a decades-long history of circulating racist writers, while also associating with white nationalists.

The SPLC goes on to explain that they have a history of torturing data to make incorrect conclusions look right on first glance. They also provide quite extensive evidence to back the claim that they have a racist agenda, racist rhetoric, and plenty of racist connections.

We shouldn’t be surprised that CIS used dodgy research methods to inflate these numbers to reach bogus conclusions. CATO (which is explicitly libertarian but more methodologically honest and, well, not a hate group) tears them to pieces.

See, for instance, this link: Center for Immigration Studies Overstates Immigrant, Non-Citizen, and Native Welfare Use. At the end of the first paragraph, Alex Nowrasteh explains, “For years, CIS and I have debated this topic and this blog is yet another installment. Please follow these links to read the previous installments.”

Each of the last eight words is a different link to another post where the author tears the CIS reports into little pieces. He’s awfully convincing. In particular, see: Poor Immigrants Use Public Benefits at a Lower Rate than Poor Native-Born Citizens. If you control for other factors (especially poverty) and use the right unit of analysis (individuals instead of families), the CIS claims just don’t hold any water.

So a hate group think tank cooked the numbers to make immigrants look bad. Who cares?

The fact that my friend (who’s hardly tripping over white papers in her daily life) comes to me with this question illustrates a bigger problem: we take bigots seriously because they always come with a figleaf covering their bigotry. In this case, “objective” data is the fig leaf, but there are many. “Make America Great Again” is surely the most important fig leaf of this century, so far.

You might ask: What role do race, identity, and culture play in the immigration debate? I also come bearing data, but I’ve tortured nothing. Specifically:

III.      There is a relationship between racial and cultural attitudes and immigration views

I’m not saying that anyone who wants tighter immigration policy holds this belief due to racial animus or even hostility toward the generic outsider. The two (policy and racial/cultural attitudes) are not inextricably linked.

However, there is substantial overlap, and that’s a key fact in understanding this debate. To illustrate this, let’s look at the intersection of where people in a Pew Research Center survey from September 2018 line up on two questions. What I’m about to say is not thorough or precise enough to publish in a journal, but it’s an original analysis and only a slight oversimplification of a properly scholarly conclusion.

First, which statement better describes your views?

  1. America’s openness to people from all over the world is essential to who we are as a nation (68% overall), or
  2. If America is too open to people from all over the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation (26%).

Surveying racial and cultural attitudes is difficult. Even people who marched alongside Nazi flags in Charlottesville will tell you, “I’m not racist.” They’re just supporters of an agenda of preserving the current racial and cultural heritage of the USA. Which is approximately what the roughly 26% of Americans who would choose Answer B above are saying.

Among questions that people will actually answer honestly (and even here there’s surely some social pressure toward answer A), this is a pretty good proxy for racial attitudes—especially toward Hispanics, who (inaccurately) are generally perceived as the vast majority of immigrants.

At best, this belief is racism-adjacent. Doubt it? Consider the widely-understood racial and cultural direction of our country—less white, more multicultural. Everyone knows that’s coming. Even people who’ve never been on a college campus know this. If you oppose that, you’re saying that you want our country to be whiter and less culturally diverse. That’s not exactly racism in its purest form, but it’s starting to sound an awful lot like racism, and it’s an answer that one in four US adults will give explicitly to a stranger.

The second question is: what do you think should be the priority for immigration policy?

  1. Better border security and stronger enforcement of our immigration laws (19%),
  2. Creating a way for immigrants already here illegally to become citizens if they meet certain requirements (33%), or
  3. Both should be given equal priority (46%).

Here’s a table of everyone who answered both questions as instructed:

  A. Openness B. Preserve Identity Totals
1. Enforcement 116 204 320
2. Citizenship 471 56 527
3. Both 567 210 777
Totals 1154 470 1624

The odds that there’s actually no relationship between these questions, and the table came out this way due to random chance? One in (ten to the power of 60). Tom Brady is more likely to kick 13 field goals during the Super Bowl. You’re more likely to come out of the grocery store and find a winning PowerBall ticket under your windshield wiper. Donald Trump is more likely to close his Twitter account.

Now look at that first row! Those who support stronger enforcement are 64% in favor of preserving our (whiter) current national identity—even though such identity preservation is supported by just 20% of the rest of the sample. In the social sciences, that’s considered a very substantial relationship.

I will grant that there are people who support stronger immigration for other reasons. I’ve even met nonwhite adults who are the children of illegal immigrants and still support more enforcement because they hold the (generally inaccurate, but common) belief that new immigrants are a net negative for our economy (see above). Even though they both embody and actively celebrate our nation’s growing diversity.

But a major chunk of the “more enforcement” crowd are clearly motivated at least in part by racial resentment and the desire to preserve the majority status for whites—even if they’ll gladly tell you that they’re not racist.

IV.      Don’t let racists frame the debate. Ask different questions.

The whole immigration “crisis” is a fiction created by a racist president (look up his role in the Central Park 5 case and his response to their acquittals). A president who ran on racial animus and whose entire campaign was built on blaming Hispanics (and other disfavored groups, but especially Hispanics) for “our” (white people’s) economic problems. Even if you’re anti-racist (which is different than, and vastly preferable to, being “not racist”), you help the racists if you let them frame the debate.

And when you start from the premise of making immigrants justify themselves, you feed racism, regardless of your intentions.

Letting racists dictate the agenda and answering questions as they frame them is something many people need to rethink—my friend, probably most Americans, the mainstream media.

If someone (Trump) or an organization (CIS) is demonstrably animated in substantial part by racial animus, those of us who are not the direct targets of this racism who still want a less-racist world owe it to those who are under attack to re-evaluate whether and how we let the racists ask the questions.

Like my friend, many are legitimately concerned about tax rates and how government spends your tax dollars. But why not ask about the F-35, a single military project with a price tag of roughly $1 trillion? Why are so many so-called fiscal conservatives willing to back military adventures abroad that, at best, have an uncertain chance to make some marginal improvement in our national security? The children of immigrants on public assistance are a tiny slice of the national budgetary pie compared to Raytheon and Lockheed. In one case, spending money surely saves lives—and in the other, spending money leads to major loss of life, livelihood, and long-term well-being.

Even when it comes to abuse of public assistance, why is this so often brought up in contexts with obvious racial connotations, such as immigration policy or urban policy?

The majority of public assistance recipients are white. There is a substantial culture of abusing public assistance in white communities. Read JD Vance’s excellent book, Hillbilly Elegy, or listen to the audiobook. He documents how Appalachia, and parts of the country that attracted substantial numbers from Appalachia (in particular, parts of the industrial Midwest), have countless white folks who never work, soak up public benefits, and have the gall to complain about moochers who suck off the public teat. (To be clear, I’m sure this is also true for many white folks with no Appalachian roots, and for others who are not white, but I bet there is a nontrivial statistical relationship in the direction of Vance’s qualitative observations.)

This is surely a big part of Trump’s base, actually. I’ll bet there are enough white public assistance beneficiaries, who resent minority receipt of public assistance, and voted for Trump in swing states (esp. the industrial Midwest), such that Trump couldn’t have won without their support. I’ll bet a lot of THEM have Black and Hispanic friends and even family and see no contradiction in any of this. (My brother-in-law bought a custom-made “45” hat after Trump won, but he couldn’t have been nicer when I started dating a Hispanic Jew.)

Pointing out other public waste here isn’t just “whataboutism” (which is an important thing to be able to spot and not a legitimate response to a genuine argument). If a family with at least some undocumented immigrants claims public benefits, it’s generally on behalf of legal residents or citizens, and there’s generally a legitimate need there.

Immigrant adults are more likely to work than non-immigrant adults. They also can’t just show up and collect public assistance because they’re generally not eligible. Even legal immigrants (which, by the way, is roughly 3/4 of immigrants) have time-delayed or limited access to most benefits. So: any effort to limit benefits to the families of immigrants generally means harming legitimately eligible people in genuine need.

In particular, if we follow CIS’s lead and use the category of “immigrant family” to regulate who can receive benefits, it means taking food out of eligible children’s mouths, denying them healthcare, and so on. The public expense is not trivial, sure, but it’s a modest part of our national budget, and trimming it at immigrants’ expense specifically would harm some of the very neediest in our society. Meanwhile, folks who don’t need it as much—like defense contractors—are, in my view, more legitimate targets for government thrift. They just also have more political clout.

V.      We need more immigration, more normalcy in the process, and more allies

So if someone asks you, “How can we absorb all these new people?!”, question the ideological and even racial motives of the people who got the questioner to this point—to whatever degree your relationship can sustain, in a context of mutual respect. Odds are, there’s someone with dodgy racial politics and a snake oil stand not too far behind.

Even millions of Trump voters have come to see the lies and hate for what they are. Encourage this, even if your friends and family will never fully sign on to the above positions. They might not be good anti-racists yet, but this is a good opportunity to start that shift.

Rationally, we should be asking how we can live without immigrants. European countries are trying to siphon off our college kids for a reason: they also need more young people! If the equivalent of a comparable expense up front gives us a citizen who’s loyal to this country (how many American kids will stay in Germany after college?) and can succeed up and down the economy (we’ll still need plumbers and physicians’ assistants, too), that’s actually a net win.

Today’s Spanish and Mandarin and Hindi speakers (India and China now send more migrants than Mexico) will continue to annoy crotchety locals. Most of these had ancestors of Irish, German, Polish, and the other disfavored ethnicities of yesteryear (Steven Miller, anyone?), and yet they see no irony when they tell today’s immigrants to “SPEAK ENGLISH!!!”

Some of these same nativists—especially the Italian-Americans among them—actually complain when they find out that New York’s Little Italy is now virtually free of people who prefer Italian, and they still don’t see the irony. Fifty or 100 years from now, it’s easy to imagine a portion of mostly-integrated Hispanics saying the same thing to another wave of immigrants—and maybe even grousing that practically nobody in The Bronx speaks Spanish anymore.

All the while, immigrants will continue to become Americans, whether officially recognized or forced to live on the margins. Their kids will lose their accents, and their grandkids will lose the ability to speak the family’s previous native tongue, without any intervention on the state’s part. Our country will continue to evolve, and we’ll be better off for it. The more we celebrate that future, and the more we integrate everyone into the legal and legitimized parts of society, the better off our country will be.

Even the white parts.