Republicans and Immigration

I’ve been watching the civil war over immigration in the Republican party with ever-increasing interest. And let’s be honest–this really is a war for the soul of the party as there is almost nothing in common between some of the approaches that the candidates advocate. I’m sure that I’ll have much more to say as the year wears on. (Full disclosure: I am not affiliated with any political party).

Let me start by noting that I really liked this very insightful piece by John O’Sullivan. The article touches on how Donald Trump changed the dynamics of the immigration debate by emphasizing some of the losses from mass immigration. Inevitably, the discussion is leading to increased questioning of the parameters that should reflect the Republican Party’s immigration policy. O’Sullivan notes:

Globalization has struck the bourgeoisie. Increasing legal immigration levels and extra H1-B visas for occupations for skilled occupations mean that computer programmers are quite as likely as low-paid restaurant workers to see immigration as a threat to their jobs and pay levels. And they are more likely to be vocal about it…

One of the internal contradictions of Kemp-style ideological conservatism was the attempt to combine mass immigration with the scaling back of entitlement programs: Keeping wages down through immigrant competition is incompatible with moving away from state welfare entitlements to market provision…More widely, mass immigration builds up a large new constituency for state welfare programs of every kind. ​

As a New York Democrat once remarked, the Republicans have a choice: They can either change their policy on immigration or their policies on everything else. Trump stumbled on that insight earlier this year; it may have transformed American politics forever. Or not.

The high-skill workers who are adversely affected by immigration have become much more visible. I have always joked that the best way to ensure a real debate over immigration policy is to create a new type of visa, one that would let just 5,000 journalists enter the country each year. I predict that it would not be long before we saw hard-luck stories of the displaced workers in the front pages of the mainstream media and editorials calling for cutbacks in this very unfair program.

O’Sullivan also touches on the inherent contradiction between the Kemp-style immigration policy that has dominated Republican thought for many years–more is better!–and the welfare state. One often-heard justification for ignoring that contradiction is that “it’s better to build a wall around the welfare state than build a wall around the country.” My reaction to that statement has always been: Which parallel universe are these people living in?

(As an aside, I once had the privilege of sitting next to Jack Kemp on a bus ride in rural Mexico in the mid-1990s. This was shortly after the O.J. Simpson saga had begun. Kemp knew O.J. personally; they had played football together on the Buffalo Bills. Although I’m sure we talked about immigration during the ride, I have to admit that I have no recollection of whatever was said. I was much too fascinated by Kemp’s theory of what really happened in Brentwood the night that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were murdered).

In related news, there’s this account in the New York Review of Books of how Denmark has reacted to the influx of refugees. It seems that, given the choice of which wall to build, they chose to build the one around the country.

UPDATE: And I ran into this excellent Peggy Noonan column shortly after my post went up. Noonan argues that much of what we are seeing is a reaction by people whose well being has been ignored for far too long.

If you are an unprotected American—one with limited resources and negligible access to power—you have absorbed some lessons from the past 20 years’ experience of illegal immigration. You know the Democrats won’t protect you and the Republicans won’t help you. Both parties refused to control the border…

Many Americans suffered from illegal immigration—its impact on labor markets, financial costs, crime, the sense that the rule of law was collapsing. But the protected did fine—more workers at lower wages. No effect of illegal immigration was likely to hurt them personally.

It was good for the protected. But the unprotected watched and saw. They realized the protected were not looking out for them, and they inferred that they were not looking out for the country, either…

Mr. Trump came from that.

A key theme of my forthcoming book, We Wanted Workers, is that the benefits and costs of mass immigration have not been shared equitably. And this very large redistribution of wealth–accruing to the protected and paid for by the unprotected–may explain why we are now at this strange point in political life.

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Author: George Borjas

I am a Professor of Economics and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.