A deluge of unattended Central American children flowing into the United States has returned immigration reform to the upper items on the political agenda. The sticking point, as always, is disagreement between the left and the right on how to deal with it. Republicans, who are fond of telling prospective immigrants to “go to the back of the line”, repeat this soundbite to passionate but low-information voters who are unaware that there is no line that many immigrants can join. Democrats want to remedy that problem by creating a feasible pathway to citizenship and making it possible to actually get into the country legally, or become legal if they are already in town and not hurting anyone.
Meanwhile Republicans, who have gerrymandered their way into a House majority despite having only 47.6 percent of the popular vote, play to their base by demanding more elaborate ways of keeping people out. Despite the fact that an estimated 40 percent of undocumented immigrants arrive legally as tourists and visitors, many through airports, and simply stay longer than allowed to, Republicans insist on more elaborate physical barriers on the actual Mexican border. Election candidates in the primaries get into a bidding war, each trying to out-do the other in how high they would build a wall. That it might not be possible to build a wall high enough to keep out the commercial aircraft flying over it and into American airports is neither here nor there. GOP politicians also vie for attention with promises of all manner of gimmicks they would add to keep those pesky Mexicans out, such as an electrified fence, a moat, or in the case of Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, locking and loading a rifle and putting in a personal appearance on the border. President Obama has joked that perhaps they would like to add alligators to the moat.
Anti-immigration sentiment is to be found in right wing thinking in Europe as well as the United States. However in Europe there is a better understanding of the need for movement of labor across international borders, since more European companies do business internationally for obvious reasons. Therefore in Europe there is a stronger business-backed lobby that sees the free movement of labor as a key part of international trade. Vociferous anti-immigration sentiment is largely confined to fringe parties on the far right.
EU enlargement has certainly unsettled many people in Western Europe who are now adjusting to seeing a more diverse population in their midst, but the economic impact has generally resulted in a better distribution of wealth across the continent. Poland was an exhausted victim of decades of subjugation in the communist bloc by the time the Iron Curtain fell in 1991, but since it joined the EU along with over half a dozen other Eastern European nations in 2004, its economy grew annually at 6 percent and the unemployment rate halved from 20 percent to 10 percent until the financial crisis of 2008. While there are residual problems, notably a tendency of young people to emigrate, in general Poland has benefited from its access to the large market and the other benefits that come with EU membership.
In the United States where there is a large domestic market, protectionism is a much more popular idea and anti-immigration sentiment is more mainstream than in Europe. Indeed protectionism has historically been found as much on the left as on the right. Tariffs, which funded much of the federal government before the federal income tax was implemented, were once championed by the GOP but backfired spectacularly with the Smoot Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 that was widely blamed for plunging America into the Great Depression. George W Bush infamously raised tariffs on imported steel in 2002 in a move that damaged domestic manufacturing, and was criticized by Democratic minority leader Dick Gephardt for not going far enough. President Obama has repeatedly lambasted companies that outsource production overseas and has raised tariffs on goods such as Chinese tires.
That there is such a low political price to pay for protectionism indicates how an idea can gain so much traction on the right even though it actually contradicts core conservative principles. In their book, the free market is the best judge of how to manage resources, be it goods, services or labor. However as soon as any of these start to cross international borders, American conservatives start to diverge from their European counterparts and suddenly want the government to step in and do some regulating. Instead of “getting big government out of the way,” suddenly we become “a nation of laws that must be obeyed.” However attempts to physically block immigrants are like putting a bigger bucket under a leaky roof instead of fixing the leak. The movement of cheap labor from Mexico and Central America is merely the free market at work. There is demand for labor that Americans are unwilling to perform, and the market is stepping in of its own accord to fill that vacuum. Yet conservatives oppose the very immigration that is needed to keep the economy running according to what the market wants.
If concern about immigration is overstated (net immigration from Mexico fell to zero in 2012), it is still in America’s own interest that there is a prosperous Mexico to the south in the same way that there is now a prosperous Poland to the east of the EU’s original membership. There is no point in having a nice house if the rest of the street is derelict. Through free trade Mexico is more likely to prosper; the country has much going for it, notably a stable democracy and at least the potential for a strong rule of law.
As for the United States, there is a disconnect is between the reality and the perception of imported labor, legal or otherwise. Most imported labor is either very highly skilled or very lowly skilled. American labor is mostly in between. For all the panic of foreigners taking “our” jobs, most are working in jobs that most Americans are either unable or unwilling to take.
Fear of foreigners is what drives the anti-immigration movement on the right, and as the Latino and foreign-born share of the population continues to grow, Republicans are going to find themselves alienating an ever larger proportion of voters.