Michael Lind:  Can You Restrict Immigration Without Alienating Recent Immigrants?

Michael Lind is one of the most perceptive political and social observers of our time.  He ‘scooped’ the Trump revolution, as I have said, before Trump even declared himself a candidate.  And he has continued to be as perceptive.

But where does Lind stand on immigration? In his work Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States, pages 259-60, writing about the effect of the immigration restrictions of 1921 and 1924, he declares:

Wages rose in the tighter labor markets that immigration restriction produced.  In 1938, looking back at the earlier era of mass immigration, economists Harry Millis and Royal Montgomery concluded that the leaders of organized labor had been correct to argue that “as labor markets were flooded, the labor supply was made more redundant, and wages were undermined.” . . . . .

Black Americans benefited the most from the end of mass immigration, which opened up jobs that previously had gone to European immigrants.  In the Great Migration, 1.6 million black Americans moved out of the South between 1910 and 1930, and another 5 million left in the period of low immigration between the 1940s and the 1970s.  When the mass immigration of unskilled immigrants resumed in the 1970s, low income black Americans in particular suffered from lowered wages and job competition.

And in the final chapter, pages 478-80:

Nativists to the contrary, the assimilation and intermarriage rates of Latinos in the United States are comparable to those of European immigrants in earlier generations.  The problem is that most of them, through no fault of their own, are poor and poorly educated.  So were many of the European immigrants of the past. But they came to a country in need of farm labor or unskilled factory labor.  Today’s unskilled immigrants enter a labor market that, even before the Great Recession, was producing mostly poorly-paid jobs in the menial service and construction sectors.

In addition to lowering wages for native and naturalized competitors, unskilled immigration tends to retard productivity growth in an advanced industrial nation like the United States.  By enlarging the pool and reducing the costs of unskilled labor, a high level of unskilled immigration warps the incentives of American employers, making it more rational for them to add unskilled workers rather than invest in innovative labor-saving equipment or innovative labor-saving techniques. As a result of Japan’s restrictive immigration policies, Japan is far more advanced in robotics than the United States . . . .

Britain, Canada, and Australia have created point systems that award immigrants points if they speak English and are highly educated.  As a result, most immigrants to those nations are highly skilled, while the majority of immigrants to the United States are unskilled immigrants, most of them family members of Americans.  The United States should encourage skilled immigration, by creating a point system for permanent immigrants based on skills.  The quota should not be so large that skilled American workers are displaced in great numbers.

At the same time that the quota for skilled permanent immigrants is moderately increased, temporary work programs, such as the H1-B visa, that tie immigrants to particular employers, in a modern version of indentured servitude, should be scaled back or eliminated.

While it can always be enlarged in the future if necessary to maintain an adequate population, in the near future the numbers of unskilled immigrants legally admitted to the United States each year should be reduced.  Family-based immigration should be limited to immediate family members.  The illegal immigrant workforce, which is largely unskilled, should be reduced by a combination of strict sanctions on employers with a national ID card, tough border enforcement and, if necessary, a one-time amnesty for some illegal immigrants, coupled with symbolic penalties for their violations of law.  No immigration policy is possible unless immigration laws are enforced.

The American immigration system needs to be reformed, so that the main criterion for immigration is not race, or nationality, or kinship to particular American citizens, but the potential to contribute to America’s economy.  Immigrants should be admitted to America on the basis of their talents, not their genes.

In another book, Lind explains Franklin D. Roosevelt’s views on immigration, which may be somewhat of a surprise to us.  He had no desire to reopen the immigration door [Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics, Pages 64-65].  Lind quotes extensively from an interview FDR had with the Macon Telegraph in 1925, eight years before he became President.  “The future president rejected nativist bigotry . . .”  Roosevelt went on to say:

Incidentally we lack a sense of humor and of proportion if we forget that not so very long ago we were immigrants ourselves. . . . Don’t forget that some of the most backward and ignorant sections of the United States in the Northern and Southern States, are sections populated almost exclusively with so-called ‘pure American stock.’ [ah, the same sort of snobbery back then!] . . . .  Taking it by and large, I agree that for a good many years European immigration should remain greatly restricted.  We have, unfortunately, a great many thousand foreigners who got in here and must be digested.  For fifty years the United States ate a meal altogether too large – much of the food was digestible, but some of it was almost poisonous . . . . we can help this digestive process by encouraging these foreigners to break away from their little foreign groups in our large cities.  Many of them, in our cities, come of good, sound stock and would make thoroughly acceptable neighbors in the farming communities.  [Canada’s] policy is to prevent large groups of foreign-born from congregating in any one locality.  In other words, they seek distribution of their immigrants throughout every portion of Canada. . . .  [I’m not taking the time here to verify FDR’s statement about Canadian policy then or now, but I am well aware that Toronto approaches Los Angeles in its cultural and linguistic diversity, and that Vancouver has been so settled by Chinese as to be called ‘Hongcouver’.]  If, twenty-five years ago, the United States had adopted a policy of this kind, we would not have the huge foreign sections which exist in so many of our cities.

Lind goes on to explain that one of Roosevelt’s objectives was to decentralize industry and people out of the Northeast and of what we call today the Rust Belt, through infrastructure [the Grand Coulee and Hoover Dams, for example, being the biggest examples] and improved highways; though of course the Interstate Highway System didn’t take off until much later, things like it were being thought of.

How would this go down today?  Children of immigrants did a good bit to help Roosevelt over the top, but they were not alone; the 1928 election, before the Depression took hold, more than that of 1932, or for that matter 1924, was a referendum on ‘old stock vs. immigrant’ culture issues.  The Democrats for the first time nominated an Irish Catholic, Al Smith, a man with a conspicuous New York accent who advocated getting rid of Prohibition.  Hoover beat him, and carried some Upper Southern states, like Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, that had not gone for a Republican presidential candidate since Reconstruction.

They resisted putting Catholicism and Judaism alongside Evangelical Protestantism, Liberal Protestantism, and Unitarianism in society.  The Ku Klux Klan, which revived at that time and spread to the north, specialized more at that time in opposition to Jews and Catholics than in hatred of blacks.  And contrary to the reputation of the Right today, they actually tried to outlaw private religious education!  Loyalty to American culture, whatever that might be.  Prohibition of alcohol vs. legalization.  Teetotaling was, of course, a rather new thing among the ‘old stock,’ mostly descended from rum-guzzling Colonials or whisky-guzzling Scotch-Irish.

The current immigrant vs. old stock culture wars rose to the surface, as Michael Lind pointed out, partly because of the weakening of the Religious Right.  Abortion, divorce, and homosexuality had little to do with immigrant vs. old stock issues, and some of the Religious Right even hoped to pack certain states with socially conservative immigrants!  While Prop 8 won on non-white votes, most of the immigrants were more big government on economic issues, and the increasing whiteness of the Republican party even began to alienate the younger generation of Vietnamese and Cubans.

I’ll have to admit that in 1994 I opposed Proposition 187, not so much because I loved ‘undocumented’ immigrants but because I feared the consequences of the Republican Party becoming white nationalist in a state where we were 40% of the population!  Unfortunately, it’s happened anyway.  I was intensely conscious that the religious right issues were an entirely different front and that anti-gay rights, pro-voucher, and anti- abortion rights had a stronger base in the people of color than in the Anglo world, but it was concealed [and briefly exposed with Prop 8] by their loyalty to the Democratic Party on economic and racial issues.  And, ‘European Americans’ [as we should probably call ourselves] are deeply divided and polarized; most of the stuff that you read about The Big Short has to do with white people.  I think of it as the division between REI Whites and Cabela’s Whites.  The former are satirized on the site stuffwhitepeoplelike.com  and the latter in the TV program Duck Dynasty.  It’s possible that there are divisions of similar nature among African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans that, being white myself, I am unaware of.  But I don’t think they run this deep.  You will never get effective white nationalism out of such a polarized race.  So I’m inclined not to worry as much about it as some people might.

At the same time, Trump actually did slightly better among blacks and Latinos than Romney did.  I was not surprised by the blacks.  Little of Trump’s rhetoric was directed specifically at them, and they face the competition from immigrants for jobs, which they usually lose.  But maybe a minority of longer settled Latinos are affected by the competition too.  [Or they might be Cuban.]  We have to remember that Cesar Chavez was not enthusiastic about illegal immigration, because he feared illegals could be used to break strikes, and he was working for the Mexican-Americans and Filipinos that were already here, though ultimately he supported Reagan’s 1986 amnesty.

In short, I think there are real reasons to reform and tighten our immigration laws.  I would frankly do away with birthright citizenship, though I would extend ‘Dreamer’ status to those born on American soil who were not ‘under the jurisdiction’ of the United States, as we already do to those brought in as young children.  We have to detach talk of immigration policy from ‘white nationalism’ and ethnic polarization.  It will not be easy to do.

More Posts