Whatever you think of the politics of restrictions on undocumented immigrants, it is easy to appreciate its simple salience. People who enter the country without official permission or who overstay visas are breaking the law. For a certain kind of mentality, that’s enough to justify any manner of punitive action, up to and including forcible deportation, which reverses the lawbreaking and thus heals the wound to the majesty of the law. That the offending parties are not American citizens is grounds for denying them either legal recourse or any sympathy.
But legal immigrants are a different matter. They are the people who played by the rules, got in line and waited their turn, and in general did all the things the undocumented failed to do. That is one reason politicians who rail against the undocumented often praise legal immigrants, and make them the proper subject of traditional American appreciation for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and the idea of the U.S. as a melting pot.
Beneath the complaints over the many millions of undocumented immigrants there is an older, darker form of nativism focused on restricting legal immigration, especially from the swarthy ranks of non-European (or at one point, Southern European) peoples who were thought to threaten the cultural hegemony of the WASP (or, later, white folks generally). Until Donald Trump came along, Senator Jeff Sessions, your new attorney general, was the leading exponent of major cutbacks in legal immigration. Now Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, Republicans of Arkansas and Georgia, respectively, are bidding fair to replace him in Congress, with legislation aimed at roughly halving levels of legal immigrants and refugees to be allowed into the country.
The bill, “Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act” (RAISE Act), would limit the number of family-based visas so that only spouses and unmarried minor children of citizens and permanent residents can get green cards. Currently the law also allows for parents of citizens, as well as siblings, both married and unmarried children over 21, along with their spouses and minor children….
The two senators also want to nix the diversity lottery, which grants 50,000 visas each year to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.
Thirdly, their bill would cap the refugee program at 50,000. According to Pew, the US allowed in 84,995 refugees in the fiscal year which ended in September 2016, the most in any year during the Obama administration.
A separate feature of the Cotton-Perdue plan is to move the system for legal immigration away from its current basis on family unification toward what is described as a “merit” system. This would appear to ameliorate fears among business-oriented Republicans that corporate needs for skilled immigrant labor would be rejected. But both business lobbyists and market-oriented economists believe unskilled immigrant labor is important, too, as a report from Politico notes:
“Economists overwhelmingly think that immigration is good for the economy. That’s not just true at the high-skilled, but low-skilled level,” said Jeremy Robbins, the executive director of the Partnership for a New American Economy, the pro-reform group led by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Robbins, who regularly meets with GOP lawmakers, added: “There is overwhelming support in Congress for the idea of immigration as an economic driver, including in the Republican conference.”
While that is true generally, support for current levels (if not higher) of legal immigration at all ends of the skills spectrum is especially intense in urban areas that rely on such labor, reports Ron Brownstein.
Cities of all sizes there have been actively recruiting legal immigrants to combat population decline and replenish their workforce. In an important study for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, public policy consultant Rob Paral found that the native-born working age population declined from 2000-2010 in dozens of Rustbelt cities––from Detroit, St. Louis and Kansas City to Akron and Sheboygan––as families left for faster-growing regions. Those places all mitigated that crippling contraction by increasing their population of working-age foreign-born adults.
Cotton and Perdue, of course, do not represent such areas. And that realization leads to the ugly underlying motive for restrictions on immigration, past, present, and future: It’s about stopping demographic change on behalf of people who see the mythological America of their youth slipping away.
There’s a political underside to the nativist case as well, articulated by none other than the 45th president of the United States during the presidential campaign:
“I think this will be the last election if I don’t win. I think this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning because you’re going to have people flowing across the border, you’re going to have illegal immigrants coming in and they’re going to be legalized and they’re going to be able to vote and once that all happens you can forget it.”
While Trump was mainly talking about illegal immigration, the political logic extends to those who are already “legalized” when they enter the country.
Now, Cotton and Perdue and like-minded proponents of a general restriction on all kinds of immigrants and refugees will be careful to avoid that kind of argument (publicly, at least). And you’ll have to follow the alt-right to unearth the subterranean desire for a return to the openly racist policies of the early-to-mid 20th century. Instead, latter-day nativists will echo Trump’s national-security rationale for limiting refugees. And with respect to legal immigrants, they will talk endlessly about the alleged damage immigrants do to (white) working-class wages. This is not an imaginary concern, which is why limitations on both legal and illegal immigration used to have significant support on the left, particularly in the labor movement.
But at some point, it will defy the laugh test to believe that today’s Republicans, with their plenary contempt for anything else that will boost low-end wages or living standards, from minimum wages to overtime pay to collective bargaining to progressive taxation to universal health coverage, really favor restrictions on immigration out of deep compassion for the working class. Yes, Cotton and Perdue and their allies may shed crocodile tears on that subject, but it’s more likely the case for reactionary immigration policies will depend, as they always have, on reactionary racial and cultural attitudes.