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Obama’s Amnesty-Inequality Trap

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Such inconvenient things, elections. So much the better if the elites of both parties could quietly meet in a plush and smokeless private room to decide what’s best. That, anyway, is what the “immigration reform” establishment must feel after the President Obama announced he was backing off his announced intention to push amnesty by executive order prior to the November election. As the New York Times reported:

What had once looked like a clear political imperative for both parties—action to grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants—had morphed instead into what appeared to be a risky move that could cost Democrats their majority in the November midterm congressional elections.

The Times went on to explain how years of the highest level of elites lobbying the Republican Party to understand that amnesty was in their interest were undone by a few weeks of the southern border seeming out of control. Polls showed that voters somehow perceived what the Washington consensus refused to admit—that the prospect of an imminent amnesty made illegal border crossing more attractive, both to the coyote smugglers and to would-be illegal migrants themselves.

It’s been more than a decade since immigration was a major concern of mine. I can think of numerous reasons why diverse multicultural immigration has been or might eventually be quite okay, even on balance beneficial. Most importantly, it could raise some political roadblocks to unwise military interventions, as the war as first resort coalition is generally white and Protestant, and the diminution of that bloc’s influence is perhaps a blessing. I would wager also that immigrants from all regions are somewhat closer to the global consensus, more resistant to the “Israel right or wrong” ideology now regnant in Congress. But this is supposition, based on present voting patterns and cultural assumptions, not yet tested by events.

Still, it’s hard not to be struck by the failure of the immigration debate, on every side, to touch on the heart of the matter. The heart of it isn’t the end of white cultural and political dominance (the end of America, as some would have it) though that is surely an element behind some immigration restriction sentiment. It’s that mass immigration is a frontal assault on America as a country with a fair degree of social equality; a characteristic that nearly defined the country of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the decades of the baby-boomer’s youth. The writer and speaker who now carries forth this argument best, indeed practically the only one, is Mickey Kaus, author, one of the America’s first important bloggers, quixotic one-time California Senate candidate.

Last year, Kaus spoke at the Center for Immigration Studies, where he analysed the broader effect of mass immigration on the economy. Some excerpts:

And it’s not because I think immigration overall will be a drag on the economy as, as some argue, the third generation of immigrants sinks into single parenthood and dependence. That might happen, but I assume for the purposes of this argument that, overall, immigrations bring a drive and a work ethic that will boost overall gross national product, dynamic scoring. Unfortunately, gross national product isn’t everything. It also matters how it’s distributed, at least and certainly at the bottom of the income distribution.

And this is the beginning of the problem, the first big problem with amnesty, because it’s very hard to believe that uncontrolled unskilled immigration won’t hurt the very people who have been screwed the most over the past three decades. That is unskilled workers, especially young people, especially high school dropouts, and especially men. They are the people who have been hurt the most by the outsourcing trend as unskilled jobs have moved abroad. Now we’re saying those unskilled jobs that have to be performed here, you don’t get those either because we’re importing people from abroad to do them.

He continues:

I spent a lot of time—I drove up from Florida these past few days. I spent a lot of time listening to country music, both good and bad, and the theme of about half the songs, I’d say, the ones that aren’t about true love or cheating on your true love, the theme is something like this: I may not be very sophisticated, I may drive a truck, but I go to work every day and I feed my family, and it’s not easy, and there’s a dignity in that and that makes me a hero just as much as you, buddy.

That’s basically a lot of what—the sentiment that those songs appeal to, and it’s a good sentiment. The idea is that a full-time job enables a life of dignity even if it’s not an affluent life. And that assurance is what uncontrolled immigration would erode. Even if some people make the most it—even if a lot of people make the most of it—even if some waiters can make more money in tips because they have busboys filling the water glasses, they can serve more tables; even if some drywall installers open up a drywall-installing shop and employ people making $9 an hour, lots of people won’t do better.

Kaus went on to argue that mass immigration undermines the key premises of welfare reform, the important and quite conservative Clinton legislation of the 1990s. Welfare reform essentially encouraged (or compelled) recipients to get jobs, and most of them did, and did better. It was part of a moral argument that it is better in almost almost every way to hold a steady job than to hustle in the illegal economy, or commit serious crime. Welfare reform aimed to combat the pervasive notion that minimum wage jobs were “chump change” and not worth the bother. But obviously if you tilt the labor market against the poor by bringing in more and more unskilled workers, the low salaries will remain low. That is what has happened in the past two decades, which have seen almost all national income gains go to the most successful.

When I was a kid (and spending nearly half the time in a very well-off family) one could often hear grownups complaining almost continually about how hard it was to get good help—for gardening, or pool cleaning, or whatever. It must have been tough, but somehow the rich survived it. One virtually never hears such complaints now. Instead we have an economy where tens of millions of people at the bottom are continuously teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, loss of health care, etc. But upper middle class teenage girls can get their toenails tended at a spa without great expense.

I would submit that a country where the rich have to complain about their difficulty getting good help is morally superior to one where the working class is under constant threat of falling into dire poverty. This is a kind of philosophical prejudice, difficult to argue conclusively. One can of course point to ways in which the lives of upper middle class and above Americans are enriched by the existence a large class of poorer immigrants. The freedom of American women, indeed of almost all “first world” women, was surely enhanced with child care options made possible by an influx of poorer immigrant women. Nonetheless, there are probably better ways to solve child care problems than eliminating the border.

It may be a stretch to say that some inarticulated upsurge of the general will, a sentimental nostalgia for a more socially equal America, forced Obama to scale back his amnesty promise. Most analysts point to White House fears of the amnesty issue’s effect on Senate races in the Midwest and upper South, where Obama’s intention threatened to brand forever the Democrats as the amnesty party among its white voters. No matter how much sympathy the stories of individual illegal immigrants might evoke, the amnesty issue gives the indelible impression that the “immigration reform” crowd wants simply to erase the southern border. For what does having an amnesty every 20 years mean, except that you find border inconvenient as a measure of controlling the movements of peoples?

If Mickey Kaus is the most prominent figure to make the explicit linkage between growing inequality and mass immigration, it won’t be enough. And so far, there are few prominent Democrats ready to make the case. One wonders why, for if ever an issue called for a “Third Way” pro-middle and working-class Democrat to make some waves, it is this one. Immigration remains singular as the issue where there is a large discrepancy between the popular sentiment and the elites of both parties. In the parliamentary systems of Europe, slow-down-immigration sentiment can at least express itself politically. In the U.S., when John McCain is allied with “liberal” Chuck Schumer, and Bill Gates and Sheldon Adelson have spoken with one voice, what chance to do proponents of a more socially equal America really have?

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative

about the author

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottMcConnell9.

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