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Opinion For immigration opponents, any old argument will do

Migrants cross the river at the Mexico-U.S. border in November 2018 after pushing past Mexican police at the Chaparral crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, as they try to reach the United States. (Ramon Espinosa/AP)
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David Frum’s cover essay in the latest issue of the Atlantic calling for immigration restrictions is generating some well-deserved scorn. Even his central premise — that if liberals don’t enforce immigration laws, the nation will turn to fascists — is bedeviled by reality. President Trump, Fox News and the Republican Party tried with all their might to demagogue immigration before the midterm elections. The GOP got clobbered. Democrats did especially well in elections in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and California, the states that border Mexico. In fact, all nine members of Congress who represent the districts along the Mexico border oppose funding for Trump’s border wall.

According to Gallup, 67 percent of Americans think immigration levels should either stay the same or increase, and 75 percent think immigration is a “good thing,” an all-time high. Over the past two years, the percentage who want to restrict immigration from current levels has averaged 30 percent, the lowest figure since Gallup began asking this question in 1965. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that 61 percent of Americans think immigration helps the country more than it hurts, also an all-time high, and an incredible 49-point swing from 2005. There’s virtually no evidence that support for more immigration is a political liability, other than in Frum’s mind. At worst, an immigration supporter will lose the 30 percent of voters he or she would have lost anyway.

Frum’s essay also includes some bizarre, anti-historical observations. This one might be the strangest: “America was built on the revolutionary idea, never fully realized, that those who labor might also govern—that every worker should be a voter.” The United States was, of course, actually founded on the still-revolutionary — but not nearly as revolutionary — idea that every white, male landowner should be a voter. We weren’t even ready to admit that the people doing the most work at the time were full human beings. Not only was slavery thriving at the American founding, not only was it acknowledged and enshrined in the Constitution, but the effort to preserve the institution also formalized the bond between race, second-class citizenship and servitude. Even the Declaration of Independence, the founding document, was altered from Thomas Jefferson’s first draft to omit the word inherent as a descriptor of our rights, a nod to the fact that even the Enlightenment thinkers weren’t quite ready to recognize the existence of inalienable rights outside their immediate social status, much less to slaves.

In another fit of historical ineptitude, Frum pines for the years 1915 to 1975, a period of immigration restrictionism, which he bizarrely describes as the “years in which the United States became a more cohesive nation.” (Frum also conveniently leaves out how those policies were grounded in racism.) The economist Noah Smith obliterated this argument in a pretty devastating Twitter thread. This was a period of Jim Crow, lynching, red scares, the Depression, race riots, labor rights, mass incarceration, racial assassinations, internment camps and domestic terrorism. Under no circumstances would you describe it as an era of broad social cohesion.

If we wanted to look at the single metric most indicative of social cohesion, we’d probably look at murder rates. The U.S. homicide rate began to increase in the mid-1960s, then generally rose until it peaked with the crack epidemic in the early 1990s. Immigration began to increase in the early 1970s, but really began to soar in the 1990s. From about 1994 to about 2014, undocumented immigration soared while violent crime spiraled.

In fact, from about the late 1990s on, nearly every social indicator in the United States began to move in an encouraging direction — dropout rates, teen pregnancy rates, divorce rates, juvenile crime, rape, property crimes, you name it. Meanwhile, immigration boomed. I don’t think immigration caused all of those good things to happen. But Frum’s argument, that immigration unravels social cohesion, is simply contradicted by the data.

Frum goes on to list of a number of consequences of modern immigration, most of which Frum thinks bode ill for the sort of society to which Frum believes we should be aspiring. But most of the negative consequences Frum lists aren’t the result of immigrants themselves, but of people who share Frum’s view that we have too many immigrants. The line I quoted above, for example, is part of a broader argument Frum makes — because undocumented immigrants operated outside of the law, they aren’t afforded the same legal protection, social status and political representation as citizens and legal residents. But undocumented people live outside the law largely because (a) there is demand here for low-skilled workers, (b) it is virtually impossible for low-skilled workers to come here legally and (c) people who share Frum’s policy preferences have made it politically difficult to grant those who do come any sort of legal protection or political representation.

Frum also cherry-picks his data. He argues, for example, that employers in immigrant-heavy industries are shirking their safety obligations because immigrants lack the political power to demand or enforce regulations. He writes:

Forestry, fishing, and farming are three of the most dangerous industries in the United States. They are 46 percent reliant on immigrant laborers, half of them undocumented. (Documented and undocumented immigrants together make up only 17 percent of the U.S. workforce as a whole.) Building and grounds maintenance is surprisingly dangerous work: 326 people died in 2017. Some 35 percent of grounds workers are immigrants. About 25 percent of construction workers are immigrants, but immigrants supply almost half the workers in the most dangerous areas, notably roofing and drywalling. When so many workers in a job category toil outside the law, the law won’t offer much protection.

Note that Frum moves freely between percentages and raw numbers. Building and grounds maintenance may be “surprisingly dangerous work,” but without some other figures for context, 326 deaths is a meaningless statistic. How does that compare to other professions? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most dangerous class of occupations falls under the heading “transportation and moving materials.” This group of jobs accounted for nearly a quarter of worker deaths in 2017 — over four times as many workers died in that field as in maintenance. Within that field, the most dangerous sub-field is called “heavy tractor and trailer truck drivers.” And according to a 2012 American Community survey, immigrants make up less than 16 percent of truck drivers. If we look at rates, Frum’s argument also falls flat. The highest fatality rate is comparatively immigrant-spare transportation, at 15.9 deaths per 100,000 workers. Immigration heavy maintenance comes in at 6.6 deaths per 100,000.

There is some evidence that immigrant representation in even these fields is growing, as native-born Americans move out of blue-collar jobs and into more lucrative occupations. But Frum’s policy prescriptions will only exacerbate the very problems that allegedly worry him. Remember, Frum also suggests curbing legal immigration. Contrary to the claims of restrictionists, people don’t come to the United States to get free welfare and health care. Undocumented immigrants contribute more to the economy than they take out, and are less reliant on social welfare than native-born Americans. People come to the United States — legally and illegally — when there is demand for their labor. When the jobs dry up, immigrants stop coming. If demand persists, and the number of legal avenues for immigration continue to dwindle, the immigrants won’t stop coming, they will just increasingly stop coming legally. That means more — not fewer — people in the shadows, unrepresented, unprotected and un-franchised.

But I think my favorite bit of Frum-ian logic comes when discussing the opioid epidemic:

Without the immigrant workers less prone to abuse drugs than the native-born, American elites might have noticed the opioid epidemic before it killed more Americans than died in the Vietnam, Korean, and Iraq Wars and the 9/11 attacks combined.

This is nonsense, on a number of levels. First, there’s little evidence that American elites “missed” the opioid epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been dutifully publishing overdose statistics each year, as it always has. I’ve talked to several medical examiners in recent years who believe the epidemic may even be overstated. Overdose isn’t always easy to diagnose, and because there’s a nationwide shortage of medical examiners, cause of death isn’t always the product of careful medical analysis so much as a rough guess by an elected coroner with little or no medical training. This isn’t to say that there’s nothing to worry about, but ask any pain patient who is struggling to find treatment — the opioid crisis has certainly not gone unnoticed.

More to the point, Frum’s argument here is a bit of rhetorical jujitsu. The nativist line has long been that immigrants — particularly those who are unskilled and undocumented — are diseased, crime-ridden and drug-addicted. Faced with evidence that immigrants are less likely to be addicted to opioids, Frum flips an asset into a liability. Now, the fact that immigrants don’t abuse drugs unfairly distracts elite attention from the native-borns who do.

It reminds me of one of my favorite-ever anti-immigration arguments, from longtime nativist Mark Krikorian. Back in 2004, Krikorian lamented over a Boston Globe story about how dedicated, hardworking immigrants were robbing native-born American teenagers a rite of passage — the privilege of slacking off at their first job. He wrote:

One economist said employers “like the fact that immigrants can work more hours and more shifts than teenagers.” A job counselor said “Typically when kids apply for a summer job they might want a week off to go to camp or do something else. I tell them, ‘You can’t do that. You are up against someone who is going to be there every day and you need to deal with that.’” As a result, the percentage of teenagers holding jobs is the lowest it’s been since statistics started being compiled in the 1940s.
Is it healthy for the future of our society to freeze our children out of low-wage, rite-of-passage jobs? When I was younger, I washed dishes in restaurants, packed tomatoes, did lawn work -- this kind of thing is essential if we are to preserve a middle-class society that values work, rather than the Old World model that mass immigration is pushing us toward, where only inferiors ever get their hands dirty.

Of course, Krikorian also regularly argues that the same immigrants employers prefer because of their dedication and work ethic are simultaneously a drain on the welfare system.

The thing to remember here is the only consistent principle behind immigration restrictionism is opposition to immigrants. As a nativist, you’re free to argue that immigrants are both lazy and hardworking. They’re both assimilating too quickly and refusing to assimilate. They’re both violent drug pushers who are crowding our prisons, and they’re teetotaling law-abiders whose good citizenship is unfairly diverting attention from overdose deaths and mass incarceration among the native-born. Pick and chose these points as you need them. Any old argument will do.

Read more:

Radley Balko: Trump Watch, Volume 14: The border separation crisis

Jennifer Rubin: Here’s more proof Trump’s ‘crime wave’ is fake

Gary Abernathy: Why a higher wall will lower crime