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April 22, 2013 / JayMan

Liberalism and Immigration

For the record, one can be liberal (as I am) and be against continued mass immigration. Check out these folks:


Once every few decades, the stars align for major immigration legislation. According to political analysts, the United States may be at such a juncture now. Barack Obama’s re-election as President has concentrated politicians’ attention on the growing importance of the Hispanic vote. Meanwhile people from across the political spectrum remain dissatisfied with current immigration policies. The call has gone out for “comprehensive immigration reform.”

Progressives for Immigration Reform (PFIR) supports this call. Too often immigration policy is made reactively, or with the excessive involvement of special interests out of sight of public scrutiny. Too often immigration policy is made piecemeal, with a failure to consider those policies’ full impacts, including their economic, ecological and social impacts.

At this point, the meaning of “comprehensive immigration reform” is up for grabs. PFIR believes that Congress and the Obama administration should avoid pandering to special interests and instead take this opportunity to rethink and refashion immigration policy so as to best further the common good. In this spirit, we provide the following proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, grounded in progressive political principles.

Guiding Principles

PFIR believes America’s immigration policy should further five core principles: justice, sustainability, fairness, legality, and a focus on furthering the national interest.

By justice we mean evenhanded and equitable treatment for all those involved. This means immigrants and would-be immigrants, who deserve to be treated humanely and with respect. It also includes American workers, who can reasonably demand that their government enact policies in their economic interest. And crucially, it includes future generations of Americans, who deserve to inherit a society with at least as much opportunity, stability and ecological health as we have inherited from our forebears.

By sustainability we mean conserving sufficient natural resources for future human generations to live good lives, and not forcing them to live on polluted, degraded, overcrowded, or otherwise diminished landscapes. Ecological sustainability thus conceived is no mere amenity, but essential for human health, safety and security. Sustainability also means preserving flourishing populations of all of America’s remaining native species, along with opportunities for our children and grandchildren to experience and appreciate them.

By fairness we mean economic fairness: a more equitable distribution of income, wealth and opportunities. Current levels of economic inequality, which have been growing now for five decades in the United States, are unacceptable. It is past time to reverse this trend that is undermining both our democracy and the well-being of our citizens. Particular attention should be paid to the economic status of low-income Americans, who have garnered little of the fruits of economic growth in recent decades, and young people entering the job market for the first time, who suffer disproportionately from unemployment and economic insecurity.

By legality, we mean a commitment to the enforcement of labor and immigration laws. Creating a fair and equitable immigration system is not possible without a willingness to set and enforce rules regarding who is allowed to immigrate into the U.S. and who is allowed to join the labor force. The past four decades of lax enforcement and repeated amnesties have demonstrated that making immigration policy without such a commitment is an exercise in futility. As the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (i.e., the Jordan Commission) noted, a credible immigration policy depends on enforcing immigration laws.[1]

By furthering the national interest, we mean that immigration policy needs to be made with the interests of all Americans in mind—particularly those with less wealth or power, who tend to get overlooked. Not just the wealthy few or the big corporations, who have had great success driving down wages and lowering incomes for American workers in recent decades, and who do not need any more help in this endeavor from politicians.

The right immigration policies for the United States in the 21st century will foster ecological sustainability, economic fairness, and a culture of legality. They will promote justice for all and further the common good. Done right, “comprehensive immigration reform” can rejuvenate our democracy, and further social and political progress both at home and abroad.

Policy Proposals

With our key progressive political principles in mind, we offer the following four policy proposals.

#1. Reduce annual immigration into the United States from its current 1.2 million to between 300,000 and 550,000 people.

300,000 is the number implied by the policy proposals of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development in 1996. 550,000 is the number proposed by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1997.

The case for 300,000. Currently the U.S. population stands at 315 million. If present immigration levels continue, America’s population will nearly double by 2100, reaching 560 million people with no end to growth in sight. Such population growth will render all efforts to create a sustainable society futile. According to the most recent projections, reducing immigration to 300,000 annually would allow us to gradually (over several decades) stabilize our population at from 360 to 380 million people (see graph below). [2] Stabilizing our population is essential to ecological sustainability, and sustainability is essential if we hope to create a decent future to our children and grandchildren.

Significantly reducing immigration would open up jobs for Americans, who need them during this time of high unemployment and slow job growth. It would increase the incentive for American companies to hire recent college graduates, who are justifiably nervous about their career prospects in the current economy, and to retrain and hire older and disabled workers, who often have a hard time finding work. Reducing immigration among low-skilled and poorly educated immigrants would improve the economic prospects of less-skilled, less-well-educated Americans: a matter of justice and fair treatment for them, and a crucial tool to reduce economic inequality in the United States as a whole.


#2. Rework trade and foreign aid policies to improve conditions for people in our major immigration sender countries.

By helping other countries address some of the “push factors” driving emigration, we can reduce the need for people to emigrate: a win-win solution for everyone involved. While improving conditions in other countries is primarily the responsibility of those countries, there are many things our government can do to help, along with a number of counterproductive policies we can end that will also improve matters.

In the first place, the United States could negotiate new trade agreements and rework old ones so that they improve economic conditions for poor workers in our trading partners’ countries, even when this means slowing rather than increasing the growth of trade. Too often, U.S. trade agreements have sought to maximize the volume of trade regardless of all other considerations. Exhibit A is NAFTA, which threw several million Mexican farmers off their lands, thousands of whom wound up emigrating to the United States.

Second, we could increase and better target development aid to help poor people around the world live better lives in their own countries. Although the United States ranks first in total foreign aid disbursed, we consistently rank last among the major donor nations in foreign aid as a percentage of gross national income. We should replace most military aid, which does little to improve people’s lives, with aid for family planning, education and other social welfare programs, which can do a lot.


#3. Mandate the use of E-verify for all new hires and enforce serious penalties on employers who hire workers illegally.

No matter how many immigrants we choose to allow into the United States, all sides should be able to agree that we need to safely and fairly enforce our immigration laws and reduce illegal immigration. Doing so need not involve racial profiling. Instead, we need to dry up the key resource bringing most illegal immigrants to America: access to jobs. This can be done, provided we take the necessary steps.

First, mandate use of a national employment verification database for all new hires, where employers can quickly and easily verify U.S. citizenship or certification to work. Over the past ten years, the federal government has spent several hundred million dollars to create the computerized E-Verify database to check work eligibility. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, over 400,000 employers across the United States currently use E-Verify to check the employment eligibility of potential workers. [7] Accurate and easy to use, it appears ready to deploy as a mandatory national system. Running all new hires through the system, regardless of what a person looks like or how they speak, would go far toward eliminating racial profiling from immigration enforcement.

Second, we should strictly enforce existing civil and criminal sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers, meting out penalties sufficient to deter greedy owners or unscrupulous managers who break the law. The potential penalties for employers who hire illegal workers include fines that can total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and jail time for company executives who encourage immigration fraud. However, in their sporadic efforts at workplace enforcement, successive Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to seek jail time for employers who have repeatedly and systematically broken the law, while the fines meted out have represented a small fraction of the profits their businesses have “earned” by breaking the law. All this could change quickly, should an administration develop a real commitment to deterring illegal immigration.

In addition, the nation should enhance border enforcement efforts. This is a critical component of any serious effort to reduce the nation’s ongoing problem of illegal immigration. To this end, PFIR supports the conclusions of the Jordan Commission that called for more financial and human resources to be devoted to stricter management of the country’s borders as an essential element of any strategy to address this critical issue.

#4. Avoid any expansion of “guest worker” programs.
Prior experience has demonstrated that guest worker programs depress wages, stigmatize certain low-skilled occupations, are difficult to administer and hard to stop, and disrupt local community services. [8] As the Jordan Commission noted: “Historically, guestworker programs have depressed the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers. Of particular concern is competition with unskilled American workers, including recent immigrants who may have originally entered to perform the needed labor but who can be displaced by newly entering guestworkers. Foreign guestworkers often are more exploitable than lawful U.S. workers, particularly when an employer threatens deportation if the workers complain about wages or working conditions.” [9]

In addition, guest worker programs tend to increase illegal immigration. Again according to the Jordan Commission: “Despite the claims of their supporters, guestworker programs also fail to reduce unauthorized migration. To the contrary, research consistently shows that they tend to encourage and exacerbate illegal movements by setting up labor recruitment and family networks that persist long after the guestworker programs end. Moreover, guestworkers themselves often remain permanently and illegally in the country in violation of the conditions of their admission.” [10]

“Guest worker” is a euphemism for second-class citizenship at best and for indentured servitude at worst. Such programs have made it easier for Americans to accept the permanent impoverishment of agricultural workers in the United States. They should be phased out where they exist, not extended to new sectors of the economy.

It’s even possible to be the child of immigrants, as I am, and be against continued mass immigration, especially at the levels we see today.

The fact that there are American liberals against continued mass immigration was highlighted in a recent opinion piece on The Daily Caller, titled “Leaders of anti-immigration groups aren’t exactly conservative”:

In 2007, I met a field organizer who had worked against immigration reform. He was not who you might imagine. His background was in the labor and environmental movements that so many conservatives deplore.

He wanted to stop immigration reform because he believed that human beings were destroying the planet and that an increase in the U.S. population would exacerbate the environmental injustices he perceived to be occurring already.


Even though the activist was working for an immigration restrictionist group that many people instinctively think of as “conservative,” the truth is that he, like many other immigration opponents, was not conservative. He was a union-promoting environmentalist, just like many of the figures involved in the formation and funding of groups that will voice strong opposition to the new immigration reform bill this week by claiming, inaccurately, that it is not “conservative” enough.

One prominent figure, a very leftist former presidential candidate, also advocated for this position:

Unfortunately, the fact that it was Ralph Nader might show how much of an uphill battle we might have getting this position to resonate with “mainstream” liberals.

That said, I am hopeful that this is possible, and perhaps, soon enough (hopefully), a critical mass of American liberals might realize the folly of our current immigration policies. As I have noted before, that is one the major goals of my blog.

But then again, maybe we just need someone like Greg Cochran for president


Leave a Comment
  1. The Man Who Was . . . / Apr 22 2013 4:55 PM

    It’s an interesting question whether one’s political persuasion should be described by the actual policies one favours or by the moral intuitiions one uses to reach those policies. I presume by describing yourself as very liberal you mean that you start off with strong liberal moral intuitions, such as Haidt’s harm/care and justice/fairness, and are relatively indifferent to the conservative moralfoundations of loyalty/ingroup, respect for authority, and purity/holiness. Yet, your knowledge of how the world actually works, leads you to embrace actual policies that are not all that different from mine, and I’m an arch-reactionary (at least by today’s standards).

    • JayMan / Apr 26 2013 1:40 PM

      Have you ever seen one of those political tests floating around. There’s a lot of variation among individuals who are in the broad categories such as liberal or conservative. I think Chris Rock said it fairly well in that he’s liberal about some things and conservative about others. I’d say we can weigh where an individual stands based on the constellation of positions in which he or she supports. Whether a position is considered liberal or conservative is often subject to change based on the conventions of the day, so looking at actual positions isn’t necessarily reliable, by itself.

  2. Luke Lea / Apr 24 2013 12:56 PM

    The question for me is how can one be a liberal and Not be for immigration restriction at this point in time?

  3. Luke Lea / Apr 24 2013 12:59 PM

    My definition of liberal, by the way, is more liberty and justice for all. I don’t see how our current immigration policies are accomplishing that goal either at home or abroad.

    • JayMan / Apr 25 2013 3:31 PM

      There’s definitely that. But of course, most liberals think that immigration helps the poor masses escape their impoverished hell holes to live the cushy life in a modern country — a place where they can be all they can be. While it’s true for some it rapidly hits diminishing returns, and of course, is not fair to the existing population.

  4. Luke Lea / Apr 26 2013 12:24 PM

    In reply to JayMan above: Yes, but that assumes the countries left behind are not made worse off as a result of losing a lot of their most talented, adventurous, and energetic members. Since this class plays an important role in a society’s economic development, that assumption is questionable.

    • JayMan / Apr 26 2013 1:35 PM

      Precisely. It’s hardly a well thought out proposition but I can see how the liberal masses fall for it.

  5. Polymath / Apr 27 2013 5:16 PM

    I take issue with the concept of “justice for all involved” here. Lawmakers deciding upon an immigration policy, AS LAWMAKERS, for the USA have an obligation to Americans who elected them, and not to the citizens of any other country. A policy that is better for the current citizenry is to be preferred to a policy that, while worse for the people whose current citizenship is American, is better for the larger group of people consisting of the union of the set of current Americans and the set of people who are currently citizens of other countries but would under the given policy become Americans instead.

    This is an extremely fundamental point, the obscuring of which is the major act of intellectual dishonesty perpetrated by the supporters of immigration. They are TRADING ON the confusion between the universalist MORAL instincts that most people in the USA have, and the nationalist POLITICAL instincts that they have. It may be, in some abstract utilitarian sense, better for the world as a whole if more people got to come here, but the current Americans are not required to be the ones getting the short end of the stick by any conceivable set of goals for AMERICAN POLITICIANS.

    To argue otherwise is to say that politicians have no specific duty to the people they govern, but only to humanity as a whole. If the CEO of a company decided to pay dividends not to the shareholders, but to the shareholders of his competitors as well, just because it would be “fairer”, he would not only be fired but prosecuted for a breach of fiduciary duty; he is free to give his personal bonus away to whomever he wants, but he was hired BY the owners of the company to manage the assets of the company FOR the owners of the company.

    It should be obvious that politicians are in a similar situation; actually they are even more at fault, because a more correct analogy is to a CEO who not only pays cash dividends to non-shareholders, but issues stock to them too so they can vote for a board of directors that will keep him in his job.

    • JayMan / Apr 27 2013 5:24 PM

      Indeed. Duty to one’s country’s citizens should always come first for a politician, and then one can consider the good of the rest of humanity. There are more complexities, such as not furthering the good of your citizens if it comes at the expense of others’ (hence why not invade other countries and take their resources at will?), and generality not being blithe about the welfare of non-citizens, but yes, you get to the basic point.

    • Polymath / Apr 27 2013 5:55 PM

      Your point about invading other countries is technically right, but even there, democratically accountable politicians don’t invade when they could get away with it militarily because of international law and treaties and so on which their own people desire them to adhere to. Usually it’s non-accountable political leaders who commit aggression against other countries.

      Although it does happen occasionally that aggression you and I would consider morally objectionable is desired by the people, in that case the politician has a conflict between his moral duty (as seen by you and me) and his political duty, and he should either resign or publicly declare that what the people want is immoral. Our politicians instead lie and obfuscate.

      (For this reason, I actually give kudos to politicians who defend immigration on the grounds that denying foreigners the right to come here is “racist” and hence immoral, they are at least honest, although confused and wrong; of course if they refuse to allow discussion of why it is “racist” and wrong, as they usually do, they are still dishonest but in a different way.)

      A final point of clarification: one may argue that the USA’s propensity to attack other countries refutes my line of argument, because our leaders are supposedly accountable; but I do not view that as a case of immorally putting one’s own people’s interests ahead of those of foreigners; the aggressions aren’t actually in the interests of Americans but rather in the interests of a political class that is, unfortunately, much less accountable than it ought to be. That’s the explanation for the lying on immigration too.

    • JayMan / Apr 27 2013 5:56 PM

      Yup. Good comment.


  1. An exchange on immigration. | Polymath's Blog
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