It’s way more complicated than left versus right, writes Michael Lind.
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.