Our morally abhorrent, exclusionist immigration regime is grounded — supposedly — in practical considerations. Although they don’t account for much of the xenophobia in play, we do hear them invoked. The presumption is that we live in the equivalent of a foraging economy, like something out of The Walking Dead, where resources are not just scarce, but constantly diminishing. More people means less food for everybody else. Starvation engenders conflict.
The reality is that more people enhance our all-around economic potential. Look at it this way: in 2017 nearly four million new humans came to the US. They arrived bereft of resources or marketable skills, and they will remain an economic burden for years. I’m referring, of course, to the nation’s newborns.
Eventually these toddlers will grow up to be productive workers, as well as consumers. A bunch will be geniuses and win Nobel Prizes. Some will eclipse the artistic achievements of even a Kanye West. Measures of the nation’s income will duly expand to reflect their contributions. Not incidentally, for many now in their forties and fifties, they will also contribute to our pay-as-you-go social insurance system, and in particular to the retirement incomes of today’s Gen-whatever. It has ever been thus.
And the same applies — in every respect — to immigrant children.
One popular canard dwells on the fiscal impact of immigrant families. Children need public education, families need health care, crime raises the cost of law enforcement. Supposedly the implied tax burden will fall on everybody else.
Even if this were true, it would gloss over the simple fact that public education and health care are, among other virtues, investments with a delayed pay-off. Educate a young person, keep them healthy, and they eventually contribute. How complicated is that?
The fiscal accounting is spotty as well. State and local tax systems tend to be regressive — the burden is disproportionately concentrated on lower-income persons. Immigrants pay taxes: payroll taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, excise taxes, user fees, lottery tickets. Adding insult to injury, if they are undocumented, their return on payroll taxes is a big fat zero: their earnings do not qualify them for Social Security. That actually means more for the rest of us, inverting the typical prejudice.
Incidentally, if undocumented immigrants were allowed to qualify for those programs, it would still be the case that a growing workforce improves the financial solvency of Social Security and Medicare, just as a shrinking one now produces somewhat bleaker reports every year. In general, the immigrant population is more concentrated in middle- and low-age brackets, and their contribution to the economy exceeds their share of the population. So their draw on public benefits is disproportionately less.
The crime canard doesn’t follow either, in light of empirical research. Immigrants commit fewer crimes than those already living here.
Then there is the question of wage effects. Imported workers do compete with those already present, so supply and demand factor in. But this can be considered in either a static or a dynamic sense. The static sense is usually what people are thinking of when they talk about the effect of immigration on wages. Often the controversy is treated in binary terms: if there’s an effect on wages, we should care. If there isn’t, no problem.
In reality, it’s an empirical question, where size matters. And the evidence is that wage impacts, though real, are small.
So does this mean immigration permanently detracts from the wellbeing of any other class of workers, even a little bit? Not at all. From a dynamic standpoint, the fate of the working class over time depends on a full range of policy decisions. For instance, the health care costs of the uninsured, which includes many US citizens, are dwarfed by the overall dysfunction of the US health care system. The pressure of immigrant school children on local school resources pales in comparison to overall inequity in school funding.
And the limited wage impact of immigration is insignificant next to the effects of the longstanding US regime of wage suppression, attributable to deunionization, neoliberal trade policy, and the prioritization of inflation-fighting over employment.
I don’t suggest that these facts constitute any kind of magic wand that would dispel the prejudices that go along with xenophobia, but they are a worthwhile part of the mix. The US working class, like the population as a whole, is increasingly made up of people of color, including the foreign-born. Our labor movement got wise to this trend some time ago and is accordingly sensitized to the ways in which bigotry of all types inhibit a basic class perspective. Parallel agitation from the Left should help to expand the constituency for progressive change.