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Friday, January 22, 2016

The GOP Has a Problem with Immigration

There is a theory of international migration (one among many) called Dual Labor Market Theory.  This theory says that there are two very different labor sectors in the economies of developed nations.  One sector is characterized by stable employment, skilled labor and high wages.  The other sector is all about non-skilled or semi-skilled labor, people who work under much worse conditions with lower wages and a higher chance of being un- or under-employed.  Migrants, say the neo-classical economists historical-structural theorists, tend to be recruited for and work in that second, unstable sector.

The above is, I'm sure, a gross over-simplification of the theory but the key point for me is the idea that in that second sector employers in developed countries want migrant labor to fill those jobs.  And that means that business and native-born workers in the very same country will have very different views of immigration.  Business wants to bring them in (or keep them in even if they are undocumented), and workers and unions want to keep them out (or kick them out) so that wages don't fall and employment doesn't become even more precarious than it already is.

The result of this conflict of interest is a kind of schizophrenia about immigration in the heart of a developed nation-state.  The loud and strident calls of the native-born for restrictions on immigration are countered by powerful voices in favor of more immigration.  Talk about mixed messages.

In David Frum's article The Great Republican Revolt he makes the case that the business versus labor conflict over immigration in the United States is being played out in one of the two major political parties just before the next US national elections.  The Republican, the Grand old Party (GOP), is suffering, he says, because it cannot reconcile the very different interests of their party members when it comes to immigration.

On one side, says Frum, are the "Middle Americans" who are not happy with the state of the nation.  These are Americans of European origin who don't have a college degree, who suffered greatly during the Great Recession, and who don't seem to be recovering from it as fast as their college-educated compatriots.  Frum describes them as "middle-class" which I think is overly generous of him.  There are fewer and fewer stable high-wage jobs available to Americans who have only a high school diploma (or less), and many do end up working unstable, low-paying jobs where the chances for social mobility are small. It should surprise no one that there is nostalgia in the US for a time when someone could do very well without having to go to community college or university.

Frum is absolutely correct when he notes that this phenomenon is hardly unique to the US.  In France older members of my family loudly lament the passing of an era where a young person could aspire to a perfectly decent working life with nothing more than the bac (and in some cases just a brevet).

The argument is that this sense of precariousness ("losing ground") leads straight to support for right-wing parties with anti-immigrant platforms.  That seems intuitively true but there is also solid evidence to back it up.  A 2015 Pew poll found that Republicans strongly agree (53%) that immigrants have a negative impact on US society.  A whopping 71% believe that immigrants have a negative impact on the economy.

So a clear majority of the Republican base thinks that immigration is a bad thing for America.  They want fewer immigrants and they support better border control and the deportation of the undocumented.

But does the majority rule here?  Not really.  Frum points out that the Republican party also includes: "Owners of capital assets, employers of low-skill laborers, and highly compensated professionals..." who like immigration, or who aren't particularly bothered by it because they work in that stable high-paying sector of the American economy.  They generally support immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented migrants, though there are differences of opinion about whether immigration should increase or remain stable at current levels.

Whatever the polls say, Republican politicians have to listen to the pro-immigration contingent because it includes party members who make substantial political contributions AND because some of those politicians run for office in regions that have large numbers of naturalized citizens or second-generation migrants. And to muddy the waters further, some of those right-wing politicians are themselves the product of very recent immigration to the US.  In 2013, Frum notes, "A bipartisan 'Gang of Eight,' including Florida’s ambitious young Marco Rubio, agreed on a plan that would create a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants and substantially increase legal-immigration limits for both high- and low-skilled workers."  In the end it didn't go anywhere, but they did try.

So the question is: How will the Republican party come to a consensus on immigration?  How can it reconcile the interests of its working class (former aspiring middle-class) native-born base with the interests of the business community and the professional classes?  One side has the votes, the other side has the money.

And, yes, it's starting to look very much like a class war.

And a hat tip to Curtis Poe for the link to Frum's article on Facebook


Tim said...


I would argue that the Democratic Party has an equal and opposite "Emigration" problem just as the Republicans have an "immigration" problem.

Tim said...

Second, I suspect many Republicans would be quite correct in questioning how deep intellectually does Democratic support for immigration go given deep Democratic opposition to emigration. Do the Democrats support immigration simply to buy votes.

**One explanation is in their heart of hearts Democrats are far more attached to low skilled and family reunification immigration. However, they know they need to attach it to high skilled and EB-5 type immigration as a matter of political practicality. Legendary Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy for example was one of the leading figures behind the EB-5 program.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Tim, When it comes to American emigration and "tax justice" absolutely there is a perception that the Republicans are far more helpful than the Democrats. One American abroad activist I spoke with said that it has ALWAYS been so ever since we gained the right to vote in the 1970's.

"Do the Democrats support immigration to buy votes?" I have heard the exact same charge in France against the Socialists. :-) Look at the Pew poll I linked to. Dems are most likely overall to view immigration favorably but they are split on whether or not immigration hurts the economy, and the independents are more likely to side with Republicans in saying that it makes the economy worse. All that makes immigration a very tricky subject all around.

Family reunification. Now that's one that seemed to enjoy very broad support (we will see what the attack in San Bernadino

Andrew said...

I think the framing of a dichotomy between high-skilled labour marker and a low-skilled one unduly reflect the US and European experience rather than countries like Canada and Australia whose immigration and integration policies are largely based on attracting skilled labour.

So business interests are not just about keeping wages down but of having a larger qualified workforce.

Even in the US, think about Silicon Valley's ongoing need for H1B visas (If I remember the term correctly) to obtain highly skilled engineers and other talent.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Andrew, Absolutely and Dual Labor Market theory does include highly-skilled labor.

I note also that there is some controversy over the latter. The big technology firms in the US want more H1-B visas, but high-tech workers say that it lowers their wages. Is there any truth to that? Or is the demand for high-tech workers so great that there is room for everyone? There certainly is competition between the US and Canada over these migrants:


US versus Canada