Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
The unprecedented chaos at the U.S. border and in major American cities that has been caused by the Biden administration’s immigration policies finally seems to have moved to the center of national political debate and public awareness.
Over the past three years, the Biden administration has effectively rewritten U.S. immigration law, creating an entirely new stream of quasi-legal immigration under the rubric of “parole.” The discretion of the federal government to grant parole or legal residence and work permits to a small number of refugees and other foreign nationals has been used by the Biden administration to rip a hole in America’s southern border in order to invite millions of foreign nationals, most of them from Latin America and Central America and the Caribbean, to travel to the U.S. border, from which they are dispersed across the country and supported chiefly by state and local governments and government-funded NGOs.
As of September 2023, an estimated 3.8 million immigrants entered the U.S. under the Biden administration. Of these, 2.3 million have been given Notices to Appear (NTAs) before an immigration court—which could allow them to stay in the U.S. in a “twilight status” for years before a court date.
Of the rest, an estimated 1.5 million are illegal immigrants who sneaked across the border or overstayed their visas and remain, with the government having no idea of their whereabouts, and with Democrat-dominated “sanctuary cities” actively thwarting the ability of federal immigration officials to identify and deport them.
Biden’s radical immigration policy represents not only a policy revolution but also a political revolution. A generation ago in the 1980s and 1990s, factions in favor of more or less immigration were found in both parties. Labor unions remained traditionally wary of immigrant competition in the workplace and immigration-driven wage suppression, while Republican business interests wanted the government to turn a blind eye to the employment of illegal immigrants. In 1994, 62% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans told Pew pollsters that “immigrants are a burden on our country because they take jobs, housing, and health care.” Only 32% of Democrats agreed that “immigrants strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.” By 2019, however, only 11% of Democrats agreed that immigrants are a burden, while 83% agreed with the statement that immigrants strengthen the country.
What happened to make Democrats change their minds? Between the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993 and that of Joe Biden in 2021, the Democratic Party morphed into a new party of elite, college-educated white professionals, Black Americans, and mostly Hispanic immigrants concentrated in a few big cities in a few populous states like California and New York. Many Democrats have called this new, big-city political machine “the coalition of the ascendant,” confident that the growth in the share of nonwhite voters fed by immigration, combined with increasing social liberalism, will lead to inevitable one-party rule by a hegemonic Democratic Party.
In reality, however, the Democratic Party is an alliance of interests threatened with long-term demographic decline—declining industries, declining states, declining cities, declining churches and nonprofits. These civic downtrodden have united around the hope that they can reverse the unpopularity of their offerings among U.S.-born Americans by importing new citizens en masse.
A politics founded on this idea—namely, that if not enough American voters like what you are offering, you should compensate by importing supportive voters—may seem like something from Alice in Wonderland. But that’s exactly what the leadership of the Democratic Party is doing, by refusing to enforce existing immigration laws and preventing states from securing their borders—while counting on the Democratic bureaucrats and judges to enforce the dubious legality of such moves.
The Democratic Party has lost majorities of one domestic electoral constituency after another to the Republicans in the last half century: first, conservative white Southerners, then the moderate non-Hispanic white working class in general, then white Catholics, all of which formed the base of the New Deal Democrats from FDR to LBJ.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has exchanged the country club for country music. In 1992, white college graduates preferred Republicans by 52% to 41%; by 2016 they preferred Democrats narrowly (48%-47%). Among white voters with only a high school education, the Democratic Party led by 50% to 41% in 1992; in 2016, high school-educated whites favored the Republicans, 59%-33%. This was nearly the mirror image of the 59%-36% advantage of college-graduate Democrats among registered voters in 2016. In 1992, voters with high school degrees or less outnumbered college graduates among Democrats, 55%-21%; in 2016, college graduates outnumbered voters with high school or less among Democrats 37%-32%. Among white non-Hispanic Catholics, the parties were evenly split 45%-45% in 1992, but the Republicans won this vote 58%-37% in 2016.
College-educated white Americans have shifted in great numbers from the declining liberal wing of the Republican Party to the Democrats, but their numbers, combined with the static Black share of the electorate, would not have been enough to offset the flight of former New Deal voting blocs from the Democratic Party.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the “New Democrats” like Bill Clinton tried to stave off Democratic decline by moving to the center and winning back some of the voters alienated by the Democratic left. The tilt toward the center included a hard line on illegal immigration. According to the Democratic Party platform of 1996: “We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it … In 1992, our borders might as well have not existed … Illegal immigration was rampant. Criminal immigrants, deported after committing crimes in America, returned the very next day to commit crimes again … We continue to firmly oppose welfare benefits for illegal immigrants.”
The Commission on Immigration Reform, appointed by Bill Clinton and headed by former U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, a pioneering Black liberal from Texas, proposed cracking down on illegal immigrants and their employers and increasing deportations, reducing family-based “chain migration,” boosting skilled immigration and eliminating unskilled immigration to protect American workers and raise their wages in tighter labor markets. According to Jordan and her fellow commissioners, “Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave.” President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which increased the number of crimes for which immigrants could be deported.
But the Democratic Party abruptly changed its immigration policy when its leaders began to hope that they could import voters from other countries to compensate for the loss of voters that Democratic policies were alienating. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Democrats generally did better with European immigrants than the Federalist, Whig, and Republican parties, and so it was with the mostly Hispanic and Asian immigration of the 21st century. Among immigrants, 32% say that the Democratic Party best represents their views, compared to only 16% who say the same of the Republican Party.
One 2012 study, following a flood of 30 million mostly Latin American immigrants between 1980 and 2012, showed that 62% of naturalized immigrants able to vote identified as Democrats, compared to 25% who were Republicans and 13% independents. A 2016 study, using data from 1994-2012, confirmed that “immigration to the U.S. has a significant and negative impact on the Republican vote share, consistent with the typical view of political analysts in the U.S.” Latin American immigration flipped former Republican strongholds to the Democratic Party, including California’s San Bernardino County, which in 1980 was 7.7% foreign-born and 59.7% Republican, but which by 2014 was 21.4% immigrant and only 46.2% Republican.
While the Democratic Party has been importing voters from abroad, the party and most large urban governments have become fused to a degree beyond the wildest dreams of Boss Tweed. In 2000, four of the 10 most populous American cities had Republican mayors. Today Democratic mayors account for nine out of 10. In these cities, the Democratic Party’s urban patronage machines of yesteryear have been replaced by new kinds of patronage machines: unionized public sector bureaucracies whose members are overwhelmingly Democratic, and kick back shares of their wages in the form of both money and time to the party. Democrat-dominated nonprofits double as contractors, whose salary lines are funded by the taxpayers. They are joined by nonprofits and businesses that are defined as “nonwhite” under America’s arbitrary and increasingly anachronistic racial classification laws, and are therefore eligible for large government contracts that they would presumably not receive under prior merit-based criteria.
In addition to benefiting indirectly from immigrant voting for urban Democratic politicians, these urban bureaucracies and special interests benefit directly from increased immigration, which swells their constituencies, which leads in turn to more money, more jobs, and more power. Unionized public school bureaucracies gain more students; progressive nonprofits gain more clients; and more funds flow to supposed representatives of “underrepresented communities”—representatives who, in general, are far more affluent and educated than the populations they purport to represent on the basis of shared skin color or other identity politics markers.
Declining American religions, too, have joined the city-centered Democratic “coalition of the declining” in the hopes of shoring up their power base and funding. As Americans become more secular, both mainline Protestants and evangelical Protestants have been shrinking as shares of the U.S. population. The Catholic Church, the largest denomination in the U.S., has maintained its numbers only because foreign-born members have replenished U.S.-born Catholics who have left the Church. According to the Population Reference Bureau, “New immigrants arriving in the United States—many Catholics from Latin America—have helped offset the decline in religious affiliation among the U.S.-born population.”
In 2021, 78% of the funding for Catholic Relief Services—which amounts to well over a billion dollars—came from government, with federal grants accounting for a third of the total, making it essentially a secular government contractor disguised as a religious charity. The largest nominally religious NGO providing immigrant services in the United States is the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, while the only nominally Jewish agency certified to work with the U.S. government in the resettlement of migrants, HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), has as its clients immigrants of all backgrounds, not just Jewish refugees or immigrants. More immigration of all kinds means more government grants for nominally religious charities and other services to immigrants, legal and illegal alike.
Other groups that make up the immigration-dependent coalition of the declining are desperate to expand immigration because the Democrat-dominated cities and states in which they are clustered are emptying out, as both U.S.-born and immigrant residents flee to other cities and states as living conditions decline. Of California, Marshall Toplansky and Joel Kotkin write: “The state is in a demographic free fall”—having lost 1.7 million residents between 2016 and 2022 as a result of domestic migration. Noting that domestic migration out of California now includes college graduates, non-college-educated people, and households at all levels of income, the Public Policy Institute of California concludes that “the state is no longer a significant draw for people from other states of any age, education, or income.”
To compensate for massive population losses caused by the flight of U.S.-born residents to other states, California is highly dependent on international migration. In 2022, the foreign-born share (27%) of California’s population was higher than that of any other state and twice the share of the U.S. as a whole. The foreign-born make up roughly a third of the population in San Francisco and Los Angeles counties. Nearly half (46%) of California’s children have at least one foreign-born parent. In 2019, 22% of the foreign-born residents in California were illegal immigrants, and in 2021 only 55% were naturalized U.S. citizens. Similarly, in New York—another state with massive population losses of U.S.-born citizens—most of the population growth since 1980 has been the result of international immigration.
California’s immigrants are far less educated than the U.S. as a whole, with only 71% having graduated from high school, compared to 93% of Californians born in the U.S. According to one 2023 study, state and local taxes paid for illegal immigrants by Californians, excluding their federal tax payments, make up a sixth of the costs of illegal immigration in the U.S. as a whole. In addition to thwarting federal immigration law enforcement through sanctuary laws, California has turned itself into a welfare magnet for illegal immigrants by providing law-breaking foreign nationals and their children with health care coverage under the statewide Medi-Cal system, in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, K-12 schooling, and housing and food assistance.
As the low-wage, welfare-dependent immigrant share of a state’s population grows, more and more taxpayers will be tempted to move to other states with lower taxes and less generous state and urban welfare programs. States like California, which once served as an engine of prosperity for the entire country, will decline into bureaucracy-choked sinkholes. Requiring sky-high taxation and endless federal bailouts to stay afloat will seriously threaten American competitiveness in key fields like computing and biotech. It will also put tremendous pressure on the country’s republican system of government, which is structured to prevent one state or region from gobbling up too much of the national taxpayer pie.
Today’s immigration debate is over unskilled immigration, not skilled immigration. While programs like the H-1B visa have been exploited by Silicon Valley and Wall Street firms that prefer easily intimidated foreign guest workers to citizen workers and legal immigrants with greater rights, there is a bipartisan consensus that the U.S. can benefit from highly educated immigrants who are unlikely to be burdens on the welfare state. The controversy is over less-educated immigrants who enter the workforce in the U.S. by various means: family reunification, indentured servant “guest workers” used by agribusiness, illegal immigration and now—under Biden—quasi-legal “parole” status.
The beneficiaries of mass immigration of less-educated workers are low-tech, low-wage industries with firms that are unwilling either to raise wages or invest in labor-saving technology as long as there is a constant influx of cheap labor from abroad. New American Economy, an advocacy group that lobbies for higher immigration, claims that Americans refuse to do jobs with largely immigrant workforces like “plasterers and stucco masons” (72%), “maids and housekeeping cleaners” (50.6 %), and “misc. agricultural workers, including workers who pick crops in the field” (52.2%). But U.S.-born workers and many naturalized immigrant citizens avoid these and other fields because of low wages, which a large and easily exploited immigrant workforce allows employers to pay. For example, U.S. farm worker wages are only slightly more than half of the average wages of nonsupervisory and production workers outside of agriculture.
But don’t most economists agree that mass immigration does not reduce the ability of American workers, native or immigrant, to demand higher wages? Yes and no. After decades in which most academic economists and business lobbies claimed that flooding labor markets with new entrants has no effect on wages, as soon as inflation spiked following the COVID-19 pandemic many of the same authorities declared that immigration should be increased to lower inflation by … guess what: lowering wages.
According to a study issued in 2023 by the corporate- and billionaire-funded mass immigration lobby FWD.us and the libertarian-leaning George Mason University, U.S. workers in many sectors benefited from the temporary restriction of legal and illegal immigration by the COVID pandemic: “[D]ata analysis shows that some of the sharpest wage increases, which reflect worker shortages, occurred in industries typically supported by a large number of immigrants, including construction and hospitality … In other words, inflation rose in part because of a tightening labor market.”
Surely the fact that tight labor markets allowed both native and foreign-born American workers to demand raises is a good thing? Not according to the authors of the study, who complained that “higher wages” can “lead to increasing costs for consumers.” The solution? The study calls for increasing immigration to “stabilize prices for consumers and offer relief to employers”—by making it more difficult for workers to demand raises.
America’s economic elite agrees that immigrant-driven wage suppression, thanks in part to Biden’s policies, has ameliorated inflation. Federal Reserve Chairman Powell in 2022 attributed inflation in part to lower numbers of immigrants. The chief political economist of Goldman Sachs, Alec Phillips, recently declared that “the labor market has started to loosen up,” reducing the ability of workers to bid up wages: “And there’s clearly been a disproportionate contribution from immigrants.” Although immigrants are only 18% of the workforce, three-quarters of the increase in the labor supply over the last two years has consisted of immigrant workers. The impact of wage-suppressing immigration falls chiefly on Americans, both native and immigrant, who work in low-wage, labor-intensive industries like construction, agriculture, retail, and hospitality. According to America’s bipartisan economic elite, low-wage American workers need to take one for the team by having immigration undermine their power to get raises, so that other Americans, most notably those with large disposable incomes, can enjoy lower prices for goods and services.
In the long run, the only sustainable way to increase the standard of living for all people is to increase technology-enabled productivity growth. But in the short run, population growth, whether driven by mass immigration or high birth rates, by enlarging the workforce as well as increasing the number of consumers can produce economic growth even in the presence of technological stagnation. Improving productivity through technological innovation is difficult, but swelling the population by means of immigration is easy. So it is no surprise that business lobbies in most countries emphasize immigration-driven population growth over productivity.
The demographer Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division, has described what he calls “Ponzi demography,” thanks to which “population growth—through natural increase and immigration—means more people leading to increased demands for goods and services, more material consumption, more borrowing, more credit, and of course more profits.” While this benefits “the advocates of Ponzi demography—notably enterprises in construction, manufacturing, finance, agriculture, and food processing”—the public as a whole must “pick up the tab for the mounting costs from increased population growth (e.g., education, health, housing and public services).” Because low-wage, unskilled immigrants depend more on welfare than highly skilled immigrants or American citizens in general, their employers get to privatize the benefits of their labor while forcing the taxpayers to socialize the costs.
Unfortunately for the Democratic Party’s pro-mass-immigration coalition of the declining, many immigrants and their children are deserting both the party and the cities and states that it rules. Having counted on Hispanic immigrants and their descendants to compensate for the exodus of the white working class, Democrats were shocked in December 2023 by a Reuters/Ipsos poll that showed Hispanics favoring Trump over Biden by 38% to 37%. An even more recent USA Today and Suffolk University poll has Trump leading Biden among Hispanic voters 39%-34%. Trump’s share of the national Hispanic vote rose from 28% in 2016 to 36% in 2020. In Texas, ground zero of America’s immigration crisis, the number of Hispanics who identify as Democrats fell from 63% in 2019 to 54% in 2022.
If partisan divisions among Hispanics thwart the hoped-for immigration-driven hegemony of the Democratic Party, then the Democrats will have to return to the strategy of “third way” New Democrats like Bill Clinton, move to the center, and try to convert Republican voters instead of importing new voters from other countries … No, just kidding! If Latin Americans fail to vote the way that Democratic strategists want, new voters will simply have to be found and imported from other regions of the world like the Middle East and Africa, where Democrats can hope that the combination of race, religion and deep-seated ethnic hatreds will successfully ghettoize new voters and ensure their allegiance to the party.
The mass-immigration Ponzi scheme of the last half century has provided a temporary demographic bailout to the members of the coalition of the declining—low-wage, low-tech industries, the Democratic Party, and mostly Democratic urban governments and nonprofits. It has even helped to refill the pews of some Christian churches. But in the end, all Ponzi schemes are fated to crash. What remains to be seen is whether the immigration Ponzi scheme that has turned California, New York, and other states into dystopias whose low wages, declining social conditions, and failing infrastructure send residents fleeing to other states will crash before it consumes the country as a whole.
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.