The Conundrum of U.S. Immigration Policy

01 september 2019Leestijd: 5 minuten
Keystone in South Dakota. Foto: WikiCommons

Immigration is the political topic that people in the heartland of America were talking about this summer. I had conversations with Americans on both sides of the partisan spectrum, with the only commonalty being strong emotions. Some were convinced that migrants were freeloading on government handouts while others pointed to the violence asylum seekers were fleeing.

Whatever you say about U.S. president Donald Trump, he has clearly succeeded in escalating the rhetoric and the passions on what Americans feel about immigration.  This furor had me reflecting on why this topic raises tempers and at the same time wondering why Congress seems unable to pass effective immigration legislation.  And, simply stated, I want to know the truth about migrants and their impact on America’s economy and society.

History of Immigration policy

Every school boy and girl in America knows that it is a land of immigrants. At various times in history the more established migrants then moved to exclude any who came after them.  For example, starting in the mid 1800s the Know-Nothing Party came into being to stymie the flow of German and Irish immigrants coming to America. Current immigration laws date back to 1965, when a preference system (which emphasized family reunification) replaced a national-origins quota system.

Although the 1965 law was intended to attract more migrants from already established European nations, it actually created a steep rise in illegal migrants because it did not contain a provision for temporary agricultural workers. The year before, in 1964, Congress terminated such a program that had been in place since 1942. Even though there was no longer a system for them, migrants from Central America still came to fill farm-labor shortages and continued to pick fruit, but after 1965 they came illegally.[1]

Shifting Republican views on immigration

Until fairly recently, the Republican Party supported free markets and the free flow of goods and people, including the import of cheap labor.  As Tim Alberta argues in his analysis of the Republican Party, which came out in July, “the questions of immigration, trade, and entitlement spending were understood by up-scale white-collar Republican moderates through the prism of macroeconomics.”[2]  However, starting with George W. Bush’s attempt to tackle immigration reform in 2004 (which would have legalized an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, mostly from Central America), Republican views towards migrants began to shift. While some Republicans continued to argue that thousands of farm, construction and restaurant jobs were not being filled because of a lack of people, other Republicans said Bush’s reforms amounted to an amnesty that rewarded illegals, who were in fact job stealers of good American employment.

Alberta identifies several reasons for a shift towards the second viewpoint.  First, the Republican party’s growing ranks of blue-collar workers and middle-class earners, whose jobs were under threat for a variety of reasons, began to fear that Bush’s “amnesty” would destabilize their jobs further.  Working class conservatives viewed immigration, trade, and entitlement spending through a microeconomics lens—in other words, through their own personal circumstances.

Second, conservative talk show hosts began to exploit this fear, followed by presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whose strategy to beat John McCain in the 2007-2008 primary fight was to attack McCain’s efforts to pass president Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform plan through Congress.  Romney realized early on in the primary race that voters were angry about economic displacement and were looking for answers of why their jobs were disappearing.

Third, McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 made anti-elite, grievance populism acceptable in the Republican Party.  Alberta argues that Palin’s resonance with Republican voters was “an indictment of the party’s tone-deaf arrogance. Having catered to the aristocrat cast atop the GOP for decades,” leaders in the party “were blissfully ignorant of the discontent simmering below the surface.” The leaders in the Grand Old Party (GOP), were not listening to their working-class base.

Moreover, Palin’s appeal to a portion of the Republican Party persisted long after she and McCain lost the election.  In the summer of 2009, conservative talk shows provided Ms. Palin a platform to make unfounded claims that the government was subsidizing medical coverage for illegal immigrants.  Palin’s wild claims complemented the fourth factor that Alberta identifies: the rise of the Tea Party.  These four factors meant Republican views on immigration shifted substantially to the right.  

Facts and figures

This change in viewing migrants as negative meant that in my home state of South Dakota I heard a sort of doublethink being expressed. For example, I heard accounts that local jobs in construction were not being filled for lack of takers.  While at the same time, these same persons lamented that illegals were absorbing health care coverage and other benefits paid by government.  While I did see for myself the migrants filling some of the local manual jobs (and no, I did not ask them if they were legal or not), I did wonder about the other claim, was it true that illegals are costing taxpayers money?

My investigation brought me to Pew Research’s latest numbers, which indicated that unauthorized immigrants accounted for 3.2% of the total U.S. population (10.5 million).[3] Pew further estimates that 7.6 million of these illegals were working.  Pew also clearly states that undocumented immigrants are not eligible for food stamps or health care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obama Care).  Twenty-six states do offer state-funded benefit programs but my home state is not one of them.[4] 

Immigration as a cultural concern

If immigration is not really a burden on taxes and local jobs clearly need filling, why are immigrants still shunned? Because populists like Trump persist in linking migrants to national identity and they propagate falsehoods about the costs of migrants.

Dehumanizing for the sake of political gain is not a new phenomenon.  As a recent article in Foreign Affairs argues, “the human mind’s propensity for us-versus-them thinking runs deep.” A point that Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, echoed in his 1st of September tweet: “The 80th anniversary of the start of World War II is an opportunity to reflect on how much the rhetoric and politics of that time resemble ours today, especially the dehumanizing of certain people (Jews then, immigrants now).”[i]  I think that the 80th anniversary of the start of WW II is a good time to reflect on the capacity of rhetoric and debasing language to tear society apart.