Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a contributing editor at the Atlantic. He is the author of “Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders.”
If it were up to President Trump, the midterm elections would be about curtailing birthright citizenship and halting the caravan of several thousand Central American migrants that has been slowly making its way to the U.S. border. Democrats, meanwhile, would much rather spend their time defending Obamacare and calling for a more generous safety net.
But if both parties are playing to their political strengths, the difficult truth is that immigration and the fate of the safety net aren’t two separate questions. They’re bound tightly together, in a way that poses particular challenges for the Democratic Party — challenges that will grow only more pronounced in the years to come.
Most Democrats are convinced that in an age of offshoring and automation, when the wages of the working class are under intense competitive pressure, it is government’s job to help close the gap between what low- and middle-income U.S. families earn and what they need to lead decent lives.
Yet many Democrats also believe that we as a country ought to open our borders to hard-working immigrants who don’t command the skills that are most prized in a postindustrial economy. The tricky part is that once we welcome these newcomers into our society, many if not most will need refundable tax credits, food stamps, Medicaid and other government programs to stay out of poverty.
If you believe that our dynamic market economy has so devalued the labor of low-skill workers that we need bigger government, the conviction that we ought to freely admit foreign low-skill workers looking for a better life leads to an uncomfortable conclusion. We are poised to greatly expand the ranks of those who find themselves stuck at the bottom of our stratified society, and who will therefore have a claim to our public resources.
Understandably, many Democrats object to Trump’s hyperbolic characterization of their party as standing for “open-borders socialism.” Yet Democrats find themselves locked in a kind of left-wing bidding war. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) calls for $50,000 nest eggs for poor children. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) backs a new poverty-fighting refundable tax credit that would cost, according to the right-of-center Tax Foundation, $2.7 trillion over the coming decade.
Not to be outdone, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants the federal government to guarantee a $15-an-hour job with health benefits to any willing worker. By comparison, the $450 billion plan by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to boost housing affordability seems positively austere. One needn’t call these programs “socialist” to acknowledge that they would be strongly redistributive. Indeed, that is precisely the point.
But can a newly arrived Central American asylee expect Booker’s nest egg for her children? If she can’t find remunerative employment because of her limited skills, can she expect Harris’s tax credit to keep her family afloat? Many foreigners who could make a plausible asylum claim would happily accept Sanders’s federal job guarantee. Should they be eligible? Poor immigrants often live in squalid conditions in high-poverty neighborhoods. Is Warren’s housing initiative for them, too?
It wasn’t so long ago that at least some Democrats recognized a trade-off between the generosity of the safety net and America’s openness to low-skill labor. In 1995, President Bill Clinton spoke favorably of the findings of the Jordan Commission, which called for a sharp reduction in low-skill immigration. President Barack Obama’s commitment to stringent immigration enforcement led critics to label him “deporter in chief.”
Much has changed since then. In 2016, Hillary Clinton promised that only “violent criminals and terrorists” would be deported. Her position has since become mainstream among Democrats — and that doesn’t account for crowd-pleasing calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Many prominent Democrats have also condemned Trump’s calls for a more selective, skills-based immigration system, suggesting that this approach is not just ill-advised but offensive, too. Yet an estimated 56 percent of recent legal immigrants have incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. If favoring immigrants with higher earning potential is deemed unacceptable, we can expect that proportion to rise. The bill for redistribution will rise with it.
The caustic nature of Trump’s rhetoric and the heedlessness of his border enforcement policies has served, at least in the short term, to mask the dilemma that Democrats face. One way out would be for them to embrace the libertarian mantra of “building a wall around the welfare state,” which would entail barring immigrants from the safety net, or at least from new redistributive programs. This does not seem likely.
Alternatively, Democrats could follow some of Europe’s more successful social-democratic parties by embracing egalitarian nationalism. While calling for redistribution to lift the incomes of poor Americans, whether native- or foreign-born, they’d be more humble about the country’s ability to incorporate larger numbers of working-class newcomers without putting undue strain on the social contract.
For now, Democrats will choose not to choose, confident that anti-Trump outrage will carry them through. But in the fullness of time, expect immigration to drive a wedge between the party’s tax-sensitive suburbanites and its socialist-leaning romantics.