Immigration and the Politics of the Left

The issue of immigration has been well-documented as exposing a rift among Republicans in recent days; articles in the Washington Post, The Economist, and the Financial Times are but a few examples.

But the political left seems to me to be nearly as split on the issue. Numerous readers of this blog have expressed serious concerns about illegal immigration; on the other hand, others on the left (like me) are concerned about illegal immigration only in the sense that we would like to allow many more of those individuals to be in the US legally. Ezra Klein shared similar sentiments on The American Prospect Online yesterday, as did Brad Plumer in Mother Jones the day before. Because the interests of immigrants and the Democratic party are pretty well aligned (who is closer to the archetypical “little guy” than a poor immigrant, after all?), it’s not surprising that immigrants tend to lean Democratic.

Yet there are at least two good political reasons why people on the left might be concerned about immigration, as well. The first is immigration’s impact on income inequality. Illegal immigration in particular may have some effect in depressing wages for low-skill native-born Americans. But as Plumer and Klein both articulate better than I can, concerns about the impact of illegal immigrants on low-skill wages in the US actually provide a good reason for liberals to want to give illegal immigrants legal status, rather than send them home.

More generally, as I’ve tried to argue, if you’re concerned about low wages for relatively unskilled native-born Americans (which I am) then you need to address that problem directly, by advocating changes in minimum wage laws, tax laws, the strength of organized labor, the educational system, and so forth. Immigration is only a very small part of the much bigger problem of low wages for unskilled workers in the US, and so restricting immigration is a lousy way to try to address that particular problem.

A second reason for liberals to be wary of immigration has been highlighted by Paul Krugman. He is concerned that more immigrants in a country may tend to undermine the political support for that country’s social safety net. The logic is simple: why should I pay taxes to support social programs that immigrants just come and take advantage of? More immigrants could thus cause more native-born citizens to vote against the social safety net that liberals like.

This strikes me as a potentially serious problem, particularly in European countries with a very generous safety net. In fact, there’s even some evidence that suggests that such a political change has started happening in Europe as the result of immigration.

However, I’m not convinced that it poses such a big problem for the US. Many aspects of the US’s social safety net (such as it is) are already off-limits to immigrants, and those social benefits that are available to immigrants are not particularly generous, and so can’t realistically be cut by much. Furthermore, if the concern is that illegal immigrants are using social services while evading the taxes to pay for them (which they often don’t evade, by the way – for example, illegal immigrants contribute pay tax on earnings of about $50bn per year to the Social Security trust fund, even though they get no SS benefits) then once again the obvious solution seems to be to give those illegal immigrants legal status.

In short, it is quite possible to address the hesitations that some liberals have about allowing more legal immigration through the use of other policies. Furthermore, those other policies would do a much better job at addressing the concerns of liberals than any new restrictions on immigration would. From a political standpoint, therefore, it seems that the optimal policy for Democrats might be to advocate a mix of increased legal immigration, better protections for workers, and a stronger social safety net.


UPDATE: I’ve fixed my sloppy statement about illegal immigrant contributions to the Social Security trust fund. Sorry about the confusion.