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Domestic Support for Immigration
by Gary Endelman

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP Amoco Corporation. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP Amoco Corporation in any way.

February 21, 2000 -- The Council on Foreign Relations claims to be for free trade but has a strange way of showing it.  Recently, it commissioned a study on the causes and consequences of global wage inequality, the  conclusions of which strongly hint that class divisions within American society are making a broad national consensus on immigration increasingly difficult to achieve and sustain.

In the 1996 presidential election season, political candidates, including, but not limited to Pat Buchanan, questioned how low American wages and rising international trade could coexist. That fall, the Council on Foreign Relations convened a study group to examine the issue. The results are now in and they merit a hearing. It is perhaps not coincidental that the same political crosscurrents resulting in congressional rejection of President Clinton's request for "fast track" authority to negotiate free trade agreements with Latin American also prompted Congress not long afterwards to dismantle the Immigration Act of 1990 in the areas of judicial review, asylum, and discretionary relief for criminal aliens. At a time when the US economy was doing better than it had done in decades, when consumer confidence was at an all-time high, many Americans were beginning to see free trade and immigration as a threat to the promise of American life. A decline in public support for the free flow of capital and people seemed to be linked in some strange, if unspoken, way. Controls on one seemed to make restrictions more likely on the other, not just in the United States but also throughout the developed world.

The Council's report noted that, when combined with America's yawning trade deficit, currency devaluation and deflation in Asia, the very countries from which so much of our recent immigration has come, made it more likely that multinational US companies would relocate production facilities abroad. As fears over job security went up, public tolerance for immigration declined, particularly when, so the argument ran, the sending countries seemed to be taking our jobs and sending us their people whom they could not employ. As the political class began to sense that it could win votes by appealing to economic anxieties, the political will to articulate an enlightened immigration policy, particularly in the employment sphere, sharply but steadily eroded. Plagued by poor education and inadequate training, low-income Americans, particularly people of color, were ill-equipped to take advantage of the rising economic tide and were not disposed to welcome new immigrants who came here in response to it. At a time when more and more of our fellow citizens had to work harder, longer, and faster to stay in the same place, the sense of tolerance and respect for diversity that are key to public interest in, and backing of, immigration were hard to come by. Except on the part of those who benefit from globalization. Those who seek to liberalize the American view of foreign investment, the venture capitalist, the entrepreneur, the knowledge worker ready for global eCommerce, they tend to favor the movement of people across national boundaries as they favor the movement of ideas and money in the same manner.

Those of us who favor more immigration must wake up to the fact that public concern over job security and stagnant wages are a direct threat to a willingness to embrace the outside world. If domestic public support for international trade deteriorates, this same support for greater immigration cannot survive.  They live or die together. Economic insularity rejects not just foreign goods but foreigners themselves.  Globalization needs a just society not because it is altruistically satisfying but because the absence of such equality will deprive it of US political leadership at a time when it is most needed. The same can be said for employment-based immigration. In recent years, those who care to know have long since realized that low-income Americans, to an almost startlingly unique degree in the industrialized world, have lost income, social status and political clout, while their counterparts in academia, Wall Street, and Main Street have embraced internationalist economics and employment-based immigration as the shining symbols of technological progress and advanced prosperity. That is why, when times have been so good, the attitude of the federal government, particularly the Democratic Party which has historically championed immigration, such as the abolition of the national origins quota system in 1965, has waged war on and against employment-based immigration. The core constituencies of the Democratic Party- working people, low-income wage earners, the less skilled, the poorly educated, minorities, and the technologically unemployed- they have been left behind by the bull market of the Roaring Nineties. US families save less and spend more of what they do not have. Researchers for the Council on Foreign Relations reported that the top 20% of American families made almost all of the income gains over the past 20 years, and most of the goodies went to the top 5%. It is hardly surprising that the high school dropout, the less skilled worker whose job migrates to Korea, the unemployed union member, these people see immigration as the enemy. They feel betrayed because they have been left behind. We who have not been should be sobered by the memory that wage inequalities in the early years of the 20th century eventually resulted in a reversal of America's open door immigration policy in the 1920’s. When Congress shut the golden door to those who sought to enter in 1924, it imposed high tariffs as the economic expression of this same sentiment a few years later. The same thing could happen again.

America needs a national commitment to wage equality as a condition precedent to a national dialogue on why more immigration is good for us, which it is. This conversation can only take place in an atmosphere of shared expectations that the world is a good place and should be embraced. This cannot happen if inequality at home forces many Americans to turn inward and away from those who they feel are too quick to capitalize on their frustration. The current support for immigration by the social and academic elites is a reversal of their historic nativism and should be so celebrated. The trade union movement, which used to battle virtually all kinds of immigration, now supports generous refugee quotas and humane family policies. Yet, the immigration advocates need the support of all Americans and their greatest failure has been not to recognize this and to embrace pressure group politics in preference to searching for common ground. That is a place where we all need to be. Let's try to get there when the good times are still here.