Labor’s Stake in Immigration: the Nagle Attack

After publishing my “Send More People” piece in Jacobin, I decided I ought to offer a rebuttal to this junky essay by Angela Nagle on the purported ideological travesty of the “open borders left” (sic). By now this subject is a little dated, but that’s because this draft languished in an editor’s slush pile for a week, only to be passed on. It’s also been superceded by recent remarks from Hillary Clinton.

The Clinton story is a bigger can of worms. A recent speech by her in the U.K. provides the relevant context, but for the sake of putting this essay to bed I’ll stay on Nagle.

The crucial caveat to this entire post is that immigration is associated with bigotry, and I don’t offer a cure for that. Here the focus is on economic misconceptions that stimulate and amplify bigotry.

The following claim near the top of Nagle’s piece embodies much of the wrong that follows:

While no serious political party of the Left is offering concrete proposals for a truly borderless society, by embracing the moral arguments of the open-borders Left and the economic arguments of free market think tanks, the Left has painted itself into a corner.

We ought to first reject the false binary implied by the scare terminology of ‘open borders.’ One can favor lots of increased immigration without embracing unlimited immigration. One can have requirements for asylum applications that are tight or loose. One can have arrangements for housing immigrants awaiting disposition of their status that are benevolent or perverse. With the benefit of this Manichaeanism, Nagle is able to equate appeals for humane consideration of immigrants (e.g., “no human is illegal”) with open borders, or more extravagantly, a wholesale rejection of sovereign nations. Small wonder indeed that ”no serious political party of the Left is offering concrete proposals for a truly borderless society.”

On a more practical level, Nagle asks what unlimited immigration would mean for leading left initiatives in social welfare – single-payer health care, free college, or a jobs guarantee. The implication is that public programs would be overwhelmed by participants, as if such programs are just a garbage pail for resources. To the contrary, the programs are investments in a healthy society, and I think that can be supported in concrete, economic terms, not just in humane moral values.

No doubt there is a political problem signaled here; many suffer from the same misconceptions as Nagle, but the economics are just bunk.

Besides being nice to have around, immigrants are a resource. You don’t have to suffer the delusions of “the free market” to agree. Educated, healthy immigrants, given the chance, will be productive. To imagine otherwise connotes some kind of zombie-apocalypse, forage economy. This sort of angst has been standard on the nativist Right for generations.

Nagle’s other unfounded economic implication is the threat to labor implied by immigrants. Like many pundits who opine on policy issues, her analysis is bereft of quantitative content. That immigrants take the jobs of Americans is simply economic illiteracy. The U.S. government can expand employment at will. When and why it declines to do so is a political problem, not an economic one. That immigrant labor pushes down wages is an empirical question, but as noted, Nagle doesn’t do data. Evidence on this from labor-friendly researchers is for small, limited effects that can be remedied by other means. One need not rely on the Cato Institute or George Borjas for guidance here.

The organized labor movement has been susceptible to these fears in the past but is now mostly on the same page as the immigrant-welcoming left. Nagle’s appeal to labor’s progressive authority harkens back to the era of George Meany and Lane Kirkland, who are dead and gone. She is out of step with today’s labor movement. (One should not equate opposition to specific, narrow public policies aiming to undercut U.S. workers, such as rules pertaining to tech workers and H1B visas, or the history of agribusiness and guest workers, to all-around hostility to immigration.)

The root of Nagle’s error is her narrow view of power, to wit: ”[the] power of unions relies by definition on their ability to restrict and withdraw the supply of labor, which becomes impossible if an entire workforce can be easily and cheaply replaced.” Of course, nowhere near the “entire workforce” is in any danger of being ‘replaced’ (note the jobs point preceding). That nonsense aside, we could suggest an alternative formulation: the power of unions depends on the power of the working class writ large, a power that among other things fosters a climate conducive to labor militancy and that agitates for the expansion of employment and consequently, the tightening of labor markets and upward pressure on wages.

Some of Nagle’s arguments are not really about labor migration, but globalization more generally, such as in the cases of trade agreements and deunionization. NAFTA’s harm to Mexican agriculture is not founded on Mexican workers entering the U.S. Nor is U.S. capital flight to low wage countries facilitated by neoliberal trade agreements due to the in-migration of workers.

A more reasonable concern is the ‘brain-drain’ of those with greater educational attainment from less-developed countries who come to the U.S. Our gain is their loss, but this is not really a problem for the U.S. working class, whose interests Nagle places foremost. We might note that these migrants send a lot of dough back to their countries of origin. The point remains that a better model of development than what prevails under globalization is essential.

Nagle’s remedies, besides taking pains to eschew bigotry (thanks!), boil down to forcing employers to verify the immigration status of their employees. Here again we have an overly narrow view of what is needed. We need to rejuvenate the enforcement of labor standards across the board, including but not limited to residency status. Higher wages and benefits eliminate the employer’s incentive to troll for cut-rate labor.

It is certainly true that migration is unpopular, to put it mildly. Failure to cope is destroying center-left political parties across Europe. Moreover, establishing a nice social-democracy does not necessarily eliminate the problem, as developments in Nordic nations attest. Unfortunately, the arguments put forward by Nagle, replete with economic misconceptions, are more likely to animate the neo-fascist, nativist right. It is not ‘moral blackmail’ to point this out.








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