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Immigration Has Winners and Losers

It’s way more complicated than left versus right

Michael Lind
February 24, 2021
Library of Congress
Migrant farmworker at a demonstration in Washington, D.C., 1981Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Migrant farmworker at a demonstration in Washington, D.C., 1981Library of Congress

Politics often involves strange-bedfellow alliances, and the bedfellows in the case of U.S. immigration policy are the strangest of all. Open-border leftists who denounce the very idea of nation-states as racist find themselves on the same side when it comes to immigration law enforcement as exploitative employers of workers in agribusiness, construction, and the hotel and hospitality industries. Old-fashioned pro-labor liberals concerned that unskilled immigration has been weaponized by employers against American workers are on the other side of the divide, along with a small but noisy group of white nationalists who lament the decline of the white majority and fantasize about Caucasian ethnostates. For their part, environmentalists used to be against mass immigration until doing so became politically incorrect; today’s Green Malthusians therefore warn against the overpopulation of the United States as a result of citizens having too many children, while saying nothing about importing tens or hundreds of millions of new residents from abroad.

To confuse the issue further, the anonymous authorities who thunder from Olympus in the editorial pages of America’s legacy newspapers claim that debating immigration at all is illegitimate. Like free trade, free immigration is win-win and non-zero-sum, benefiting everybody. Immigration never lowers wages or takes jobs from citizens or burdens public services and welfare programs—oh, and immigrants found companies and win Nobel Prizes. According to editorial and op-ed page orthodoxy, those who suggest that there might be any downsides whatsoever to any kind or amount of immigration, particularly unskilled, low-wage immigration, are ignorant of economics and motivated to scapegoat immigrants by racism or “status anxiety.” In the condescending words of Barack Obama to Democratic donors in 2008, “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Contrary to the party line of the neoliberal establishment, there are genuine costs as well as benefits to immigration, with winners and losers of different kinds. Imagine four separate sports arenas, not far apart. Arena One is the economy. Arena Two is the welfare state. Arena Three is civil rights. And Arena Four is party politics. In each arena, if large numbers of immigrants are added, one team in a conflict can benefit at the expense of another.

Consider Arena One, the economy. You need not be a Marxist to see that the class conflict between wage earners and employers in modern capitalist societies involves the relative bargaining power of the two groups, when it comes to setting wages, benefits, and working conditions. Where wages are set by market conditions rather than collective bargaining among employers and organized labor, tight labor markets increase the bargaining power of wage earners and loose labor markets reduce them. The working class should want employers to compete with one another to bid for scarce workers by raising wages, while the employer class should want a surplus of workers to compete with one another for scarce jobs by accepting lower wages.

Following this logic, organized labor in the United States has generally tended to favor restriction of immigration, from the early 19th century until the end of the 20th. Under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, himself a Jewish immigrant from Britain, the American Federation of Labor favored legislation to cut back first Asian and then European immigration levels.

Pro-labor restrictionists a century ago often combined the economic case against high levels of immigration with racist stereotypes of immigrants. For example, the labor activist and socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs asserted: “The Dago [Italian immigrant] works for small pay, and lives far more like a savage or a wild beast than the Chinese.”

But some American labor advocates opposed racism and ethnic chauvinism while supporting immigration restriction in the interest of all workers at the same time. A. Philip Randolph, who forced the Roosevelt administration to integrate defense production in World War II and later organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, supported immigration for economic reasons. In an essay in The Messenger in 1924 Randolph, the founder of the Railroad Porters Union, wrote:

Instead of reducing immigration to 2% of the 1890 quota, we favor reducing it to nothing ... We favor shutting out the Germans from Germany, the Italians from Italy ... The Hindus from India, the Chinese from China, and even the Negroes from the West Indies. This country is suffering from immigrant indigestion … [It] over-floods the labor market, resulting in lowering the standard of living, race-riots, and general social degradation. The excessive immigration is against the interests of the masses of all races and nationalities in the country—both foreign and native.”

Hispanic activists have sometimes been restrictionists as well. In the 1950s, Dr. George I. Sanchez, the first Mexican American professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), along with allies in the Hispanic civil rights movement, criticized federal officials for not punishing employers who hired unauthorized Mexican labor, arguing that this harmed the economic prospects of older, established Hispanic communities in the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cesar Chavez, whose bust sits in President Joe Biden’s Oval Office, denounced unauthorized immigration because it enabled agribusiness to thwart his efforts to organize farmworkers. The abolition of the exploitative bracero program, which brought in guest workers (contract laborers) for the benefit of farmers and ranchers in the Southwest, was one of the great victories of the labor-liberal Democratic coalition in the Civil Rights era.

Until around 2000, the Republicans as the party of business generally favored both higher levels of legal immigration and lax enforcement of laws against unauthorized immigration, while the Democrats and the labor unions favored more restrictive policies. Two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, appointed commissions—the Hesburgh Commission and the Jordan Commission, headed by Barbara Jordan, the first African American member of Congress from Texas—which called for reducing unskilled immigration and increasing border and workplace enforcement. As recently as 2006, Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Chuck Schumer among others voted for the Secure Fence Act, which provided for two layers of reinforced fencing along 700 miles of the border. In comparison, Donald Trump’s proposed border “wall,” compared to the Berlin Wall by many Democrats, only had one layer and was only slightly longer at 1,000 miles.

Both parties in all elections should have an incentive to compete for all groups on the basis of issues that unite American citizens of different races, ethnicities, and religions.

Between 2000 and 2016, the positions of the two parties on immigration and border enforcement were completely reversed. Partly this had to do with electoral calculations, which I’ll address below. But mainly it had to do with the changing class composition of the two parties. Within the white majority, working-class whites who used to be Democrats now dominate the Republican voting base, while the Democratic Party is being gentrified by an influx of country club Republicans. For their part, recent nonwhite immigrants, like earlier diasporas in the United States, tend to engage in ethnic bloc voting, rather than voting on the basis of class.

And organized labor? Unions are still powerful in the public sector. But private sector unionization at little more than 6% is practically extinct. Around 2000 the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations abandoned their historic suspicion of mass immigration as the price of being tolerated as minor partners in the new Democratic coalition, which is dominated by Greens and champions of race and gender leftism and funded by Silicon Valley and Wall Street and Hollywood.

Let us turn to the next stadium, Arena Two: the welfare state. Here, too, immigration affects the balance of power among the competing teams in the arena.

In every modern democracy, even in the absence of immigration, the welfare state is a source of political conflict. Taxpayers often worry they are subsidizing freeloaders. If welfare state programs are not universal but means-tested by income and assets, working class voters who earn too much to be eligible for welfare may resent people slightly poorer than they are who qualify for welfare state benefits.

The most generous welfare states were created in small, ethnically homogeneous countries like the Nordic nations, at a time when they had little or no immigration. In countries that were always highly diverse in ethnic or racial or linguistic composition, like Switzerland and the United States, the welfare state has usually been a minimal safety net, thanks to fears by more affluent groups that their members will pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits.

Whether immigration-driven diversity reduces public support for redistribution is debated among social scientists. The rise of populist movements like the Sweden Democrats on both sides of the Atlantic that favor both immigration restriction and the defense of national welfare state programs for the citizenry suggests there is indeed a trade-off. The Economist summed up Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam’s finding of an inverse correlation between diversity and redistribution in a headline: “Diversity or the Welfare State: Choose One.”

Arena Three, where immigration can produce winners and losers, involves civil rights. Following the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s, the U.S. government, instead of abolishing archaic racial labels for more accurate national origins data, settled on five catchall racial categories—Black, non-Hispanic white, Hispanic (of any race), Asian and Pacific Islander, and Native American. All contemporary immigrants to the United States, like all citizens, are assigned to one of these arbitrary categories or a few others. Today the largest “racial minority” is Hispanics (I use scare quotes because the census says that Hispanics may be of any race and because about half of Hispanic Americans say they are white). Meanwhile, Asian immigrants now dominate immigration flows to the United States.

The result is that affirmative action, intended half a century ago to increase the numbers of Black Americans relative to white Americans in various fields, is now being used to limit the number of high-achieving “Asian and Pacific Islanders” in university admissions and jobs, in order to increase the numbers of “Hispanics,” among others. To be admitted to Harvard or Yale or any other selective university, a poor Vietnamese American is likely to need much higher test scores than a wealthy Argentine American.

Elite institutions are now adopting informal but real quotas limiting the ability of Asian Americans to advance in universities, corporations, and other institutions, similar to the anti-Jewish quotas in the same institutions a century ago to protect white Christians from competition. To justify anti-Asian discrimination, many on the left are now defining Asian Americans as “white-adjacent” so that they can be discriminated against like non-Hispanic whites (who according to “critical race theory” have no rights against racial discrimination at all, given their “white privilege”).

In sum, the collision of large-scale, diverse immigration with the present-day American system of racial classifications and racial preferences for some groups at the expense of others generates toxic interaction in the American body politic.

Last but not least is the fourth of our imaginary stadiums: party politics. Here the way that immigration affects alignments is obvious. If a group of immigrants, on gaining citizenship, tend to vote for Party A more than Party B, it is only to be expected that Party A will seek to import more voters in that category and Party B will seek to block Party A from doing so.

As early as the 1800s, Irish immigrants in the United States tended to vote for the parties dominated by white Southerners—Jeffersonian Republicans, Democratic Republicans, and Democrats—in an alliance against their common enemies, white Northern Protestants, that lasted up until the Kennedy-Johnson pairing of 1960. Their adversaries—Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans—often sought to limit Irish immigration using a variety of pretexts. During the wars of the Revolution the Federalists denounced Irish immigrants as revolutionary Jacobins. A few decades later, for the American Party or “Know Nothings” the Irish were agents of the pope trying to turn America Catholic. The “Know Nothings” were not ignoramuses; like many of today’s white Democrats, they tended to be from affluent, educated Northern Protestant backgrounds, and like many of today’s liberals viewed the Catholic Church as a reactionary force in America and the world.

In our own time, between the 1960s and the 1990s, Republicans and Democrats contested the growing Hispanic vote. But insults like California’s Proposition 107—“Save Our State”—that sought to ban unauthorized immigrants from using public services, along with the rhetoric of nativists like Patrick J. Buchanan who railed against “Third World immigrants” (as though Third World status were hereditary), drove many Hispanic voters to the Democratic Party.

Then in 2002, the book The Emerging Democratic Majority by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira convinced many progressives, who ignored the careful qualifications made by the authors, that the Democrats could create a permanent one-party regime in the United States simply by importing voters from Latin America. In response to being told that immigration will doom their party to extinction, many Republicans unsurprisingly have responded by treating Hispanic immigration and bloc voting for Democrats as an existential threat to the very existence of the Republican Party and the two-party system.

In different arenas, then, an influx of immigrants can change the score by bolstering one team and weakening the other. Let’s tally up the scores, stadium by stadium.

First, the economic arena. Through no fault of the immigrants themselves, in some sectors like agriculture, meatpacking, construction, and maid and nanny services, the presence of large numbers of unskilled immigrants has undoubtedly lowered labor costs for employers and prices for some consumers, while weakening the bargaining power and lowering the wages of unskilled workers in those occupations, native and immigrant alike. In addition, the availability of inexpensive, abundant, unskilled labor may have reduced the incentive of employers to substitute technology for labor, lowering overall productivity growth.

With respect to the American welfare state, the presence of large numbers of low-income immigrants, including millions of unauthorized immigrants, has almost certainly made it more politically difficult to pass large-scale redistributive programs in the United States since the 1980s. In contrast, during the reformist New Deal and Great Society eras, the foreign-born population of the United States plummeted to historic lows following the cutoff of mass immigration in the 1920s, and assimilation blurred the once-striking differences between Anglo-Americans and various European diasporas.

In the civil rights arena, the combination of immigration and racial preferences is pouring gasoline on the existing fire of racial and ethnic rivalries.

Finally, the claim of many progressives, accepted by many conservatives, that immigration will inevitably doom the Republicans and create permanent one-party rule by the Democrats has made bad partisan polarization even worse.

None of this is an argument against immigration as such. On the contrary, a case can be made that the exacerbation of social conflicts by immigration has as much to do with the structure of American institutions, and the mix of immigrant categories, as it does with immigration in the abstract.

In the economic arena, for example, the incentive of predatory employers to prefer immigrants with limited rights, like unauthorized immigrants and H-1B and H-2A guest workers (unfree indentured servants bound to a single employer), can be eliminated by a mandate that all those who work in the United States have identical economic rights, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. Guest workers should be freed from bondage to a single employer and given green cards, allowing them to work for any employer. And the majority of unauthorized immigrants in the United States, who are not going to be arrested and deported, should be granted authorized status with full economic rights and a path to citizenship. Meanwhile, increased collective bargaining—preferably at the level of entire sectors or industries—can thwart individual firms that seek to use low wages or unauthorized employees to undercut their rivals. Any and all reforms that prevent employers from discriminating against citizen-workers in favor of immigrants with fewer rights help citizen-workers and immigrants alike.

What about the welfare state? Voters tend to favor universal programs like Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance, particularly when a work requirement allows them to be defined as “earned benefits.” Conversely, voters tend to resent means-tested programs or race-based programs for which they are disqualified because they make too much money or belong to the wrong “race.” As an old saying has it, “programs for the poor are poor programs.”

If low-income immigrants are overrepresented among the beneficiaries of means-tested or race-based benefits, a backlash powered by class or racial resentments is inevitable. One way to minimize resentment by the majority is to replace as many welfare state programs with universal earned benefits as possible. Another solution is for the United States to follow the lead of Canada and other English-speaking democracies and increase the number of skilled immigrants and their immediate families, who are more affluent and less likely to rely on welfare, while reducing the numbers of less-educated immigrants who qualify for green cards on the basis of extended family relationships or “chain migration.”

In civil rights the solution to the conflicts arising from the interaction of immigration and America’s race-based system of different rights for different groups is obvious: Scrap race-based public policy for race-neutral or “colorblind” public policy. This should have been done 50 years ago. Racial discrimination continues to exist in America, but it should be dealt with by anti-discrimination law. The major economic legacies of historic American white supremacy, like the disproportionate poverty of Black Americans, should be addressed by policies that help disadvantaged people of all races, including the majority of poor Americans who are non-Hispanic whites.

In addition to treating all Americans identically without regard for race, while helping the economically disadvantaged, the federal government should abolish the bizarre, unscientific racial categories inherited from the 1970s, like “Hispanic” and “non-Hispanic white” and “Asian and Pacific Islander.” The census of 2030, in the interest of accuracy, should ask Americans only to list specific countries of ancestral origin, like Mexico, Germany, or the Philippines, citing continents like Europe or Africa only if they do not know more details.

Finally, there is party politics. As we have seen, partisan politicians and voters who may have no other interest in immigration may support it or oppose it, depending on whether it grows or shrinks the ranks of their voters.

The good news is that a trend toward racial and ethnic depolarization in party politics appears to be underway. While majorities of Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans still vote for the Democrats, and a majority of non-Hispanic whites vote for Republicans, in each recent election more non-Hispanic whites have moved into the Democratic camp while more nonwhites have shifted toward the Republicans. Needless to say, these trends have confounded the complacent progressive theorists of the “coalition of the ascendant” who predicted wrongly that a backlash against Donald Trump’s immigration policies and rhetoric would wipe out the Republican Party in the 2020 elections. Instead, thanks in part to defections of Hispanic voters to the GOP, the Democrats only narrowly defeated Trump and won slim majorities in the House and Senate, which may be lost in 2022 or 2024.

The defeat of the lazy demographic triumphalism of the Democratic Party is good for the country. Both parties in all elections should have an incentive to compete for all groups on the basis of issues that unite American citizens of different races, ethnicities, and religions. And neither party should be able to take for granted the votes of naturalized immigrant citizens purely on the basis of their identities.

The conventional wisdom of the op-ed pages to the contrary, immigration will always produce winners and losers. But by reforming the American institutions which immigrants join on their arrival, and by altering the mix of immigrants, we can lower the temperature while lowering the stakes.

Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.