Donald Trump no longer wants to build a border wall because Mexico is emptying its prisons of rapists and pointing them toward Texas. Now, he wants to build it because low-skill immigrants depress the wages of America’s high-school dropouts.
After over a week of fumbling attempts to find an immigration platform agreeable to both white nationalists and suburban moms, the GOP nominee appears to have concluded that he doesn’t need to moderate his policies so much as his justifications for them. According to Politico’s Eli Stokols, there is broad agreement among Trump’s inner circle that “winning the election will require Trump to put a more humane gloss on his immigration proposals without significantly watering them down.”
Stokols suggests that in his much-hyped Wednesday speech, Trump will call for building a (physical) border wall, cracking down on sanctuary cities, and increasing immigration enforcement. He will not, however, call for a deportation force to round up 11 million people.
Beyond this omission, the primary difference in Trump’s approach to undocumented immigration will be in his reasons for opposing it so vehemently. The mogul’s new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, advised congressional Republicans in 2014 that their anti-immigration pitch would be most palatable if they argued that “immigration is depressing wages for American workers.” Trump played that angle while campaigning in Washington state last night.
And Politico reports that he will devote a portion of Wednesday night’s speech to “explaining the importance” of his immigration reforms for “economic and national security reasons.”
This won’t be the first time Trump has justified his hard-line immigration stance on economic terms. But, until now, the innate criminality of the undocumented — and the need to preserve American cultural values — has featured much more prominently in his rhetoric. This forthright xenophobia found an underserved market in the GOP primary. But the broader electorate prefers a less bitter flavor of anti-immigration advocacy. And everyone agrees that jobs and wages are a legitimate concern. In fact, many of America’s most anti-Trump conservatives second his argument that the GOP Establishment’s enthusiasm for immigration constitutes a betrayal of the party’s working-class voters.
Without question, having the Republican nominee argue for a border wall on economic grounds is better for the country than having him defend it by claiming that “Mexicans are rapists.” Still, in a certain light, Trump’s initial pitch was more cogent: If you’re concerned that non-white immigrants are compromising America’s cultural cohesion — while murdering its young women — prioritizing immigration enforcement makes sense. But if your concern is that America’s low-skill workers make too little money, punishing municipalities that make life more livable for the undocumented is a bizarre policy to prioritize.
There is broad consensus among economists that immigration, legal and otherwise, tends to increase America’s economic growth. Even Harvard economist George Borjas, one of the academics most skeptical about immigration, has estimated that a bizarro America with zero immigration would have a GDP $1.6 trillion lower than our own. Borjas claims that 98 percent of that growth goes to the immigrants themselves, in the form of wages and benefits. But that still leaves a 2 percent net gain for the native-born population. Other studies have found that immigration produces a much larger benefit for the native born.
The crux of the argument, then, is about the distribution of those gains. Immigration helps overall economic growth by adding demand to the economy while increasing productivity, since it allows native-born workers more opportunity to specialize. But what if those opportunities are concentrated at the top of the wage-scale — and come at the cost of lower wages at the bottom? David Frum paints such a picture in The Atlantic:
The foreign-born nanny enables her college-educated employer to return to the workforce earlier, raising wages for both nanny and employer. The foreign-born gardener mows the lawn, freeing his accountant employer to spend Saturday morning billing clients.
In this narrative, the economic benefit of immigration derives from its potential to redistribute income upward: Immigration lowers wages in low-skill sectors, thus making it affordable for high-skill workers to increase their efficiency.
This story has a strong internal logic. And it’s supported by Borjas’s research, which posits that during the last two decades of the 20th century, low-skilled immigration reduced the wages of native-born high-school dropouts by 10 percent. But other studies have contested Borjas’s findings. In studying the influx of low-skill Cuban immigrants to Miami in 1980, Berkley economist David Card found no significant drop in wages among the native-born.
And a Moodys Analytics study of the economic ramifications of Arizona’s efforts to curb undocumented immigration complicates matters further. The study found that as the undocumented population in the state decreased, low-skill native-born workers did see a rise in wages — but also a rise in unemployment. Other research has found that the specific mechanisms the government uses to discourage undocumented immigration can produce their own unique economic harms: When states adopt E-verify, they have greater difficulty attracting foreign investment; denying driver’s licenses to the undocumented increases the cost of car insurance for the native-born.
It’s not unreasonable to suspect that expansionary immigration might not be in the immediate interest of America’s most vulnerable workers. But the evidence is decidedly mixed. And as Harvard economist — and occasional Borjas collaborator — Lawrence Katz has argued, evidence suggests that such low-skill wages have been impacted far more by technological change, global trade, and the decline of unions.
The fact is, if Trump and other immigration-skeptical Republicans really felt that raising the wages of low-skill workers should be a top policy priority — even if it means accepting lower overall economic growth — then they would advocate for the long list of measures that would do so more directly than border enforcement. As Jeff Spross has written for the Week:
There are lots of ways we could increase worker bargaining power, especially for low-skill Americans, while still taking in many more immigrants than we do now.
We could break up the work the economy already provides into smaller chunks that can be distributed to more workers, through things like national paid leave mandates, paid vacation, strengthened overtime laws, and a shortened work week. We could get the Federal Reserve to run much more aggressive monetary stimulus, or even fundamentally reform the way that policy operates, so that the boost the Fed pumps into the economy goes straight to the Americans hardest hit by bad economic times. We could ramp up government stimulus spending, the generosity of the social safety net, or both, which would also create jobs. And we could change laws to make unions more powerful, so they’d be ready and waiting to take on new immigrants as members and fight on their behalf.
To see the salience of this last point, step into a casino in Las Vegas. Sin City is a magnet for immigrants, and roughly one-fifth of its population is foreign-born. But the low-skill, service-sector jobs in the city’s casinos provide better pay and benefits than the national average. The reason? Unions cornered that end of the labor market and strengthened workers’ bargaining power.
But for some odd reason, increasing union density is nowhere on Trump’s agenda. Instead, the Republican nominee opposes an increase to the federal minimum wage and advocates for massive supply-side tax cuts — policies predicated on the idea that overall economic growth and efficiency is more important than distributional concerns.
Donald Trump is not proposing that we spend $15 to $25 billion in taxpayer (and/or Mexican) money on a border wall because he thinks non-white high-school dropouts need to have better employment opportunities. He is proposing it because the thought of a ten-foot wall along our southern border assuages the cultural anxiety of many older, white Republicans.