ON MAY 1, 2008, there were large protests in cities across the United States for the rights of undocumented workers for the third year running. Immigrant workers, particularly well-organized Latino communities, have put May Day back on the map.
Exactly two weeks later, immigration officials undertook their largest-ever single-site raid at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. Descending on the factory in a convoy of buses, federal agents arrested and detained almost 400 “illegals,” mainly from Mexico and Guatemala.
Immigration is hotly contested in the U.S., particularly within conservative circles. While some advocate zero immigration, and cheer on the racist Minutemen who use vigilante tactics to repel Latinos at the border, large sections of big business know how crucial migrant workers are to the future functioning of U.S. capitalism.
Falling into this latter category is Jason Riley, a Wall Street Journal board member whose new book, Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders, sets about demolishing the most common myths against migration, including those concerning the environment, jobs, wages, welfare, crime, and language.
I admit I had a love-hate relationship with this book. Riley is great when he makes a mockery of modern day Malthusians, who blame overpopulation for the planet’s environmental woes, and use green arguments as a thin veneer for racism.
He’s at his strongest when he cites academic studies showing that migrants neither steal the jobs, nor drive down the wages, of native-born workers. He argues that while most native-born workers have a high school diploma and some college education, foreign-born workers tend to be either unskilled labourers, working in jobs that most native-born workers shun, or highly skilled professionals. In 2003, for example, 30 percent of Ph.D holders working in the U.S. as scientists or engineers were migrants. He writes that “There is some overlap, of course, but this skill distribution is the reason immigrants and natives for the most part aren’t competing for the same positions.”
Riley also uses studies that show that immigrants have lower crime rates than the natives. One study, by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago in 2005, found that the most recently arrived migrants have the lowest incarceration rates “and that their relative rates of institutionalisation have fallen over the last three decades.”
Against those who argue that immigrants drain welfare and health budgets, he says: “Because the illegals who collect a paycheck also pay payroll and Social Security taxes but are denied the attendant benefits, Uncle Sam tends to come out ahead.”
The myth that immigrants refuse to learn English is taken on with 2005 data from the Census Bureau. This shows that while one-third of Latino immigrants in the U.S. for less than a decade speak English well, “that proportion climbs to 75 per cent for those here 30 years or more.”
Politically, Riley comes across as a Republican who bemoans the fact that his party’s candidates all too often put hostility to migrants at center stage, including running ads that portray Latinos as dangerous criminals or terrorists. However, he says that anti-immigrant racism has generally been a non-starter at the polls because “it’s seldom the issue that decides someone’s vote.” He cites a Gallup Poll that found that just 13 percent favored deportation of immigrants, while 78 percent said immigrants should be allowed to keep their jobs and apply for citizenship.
Riley also highlights the immense waste involved with keeping people out. Between 1986 and 2002, the number of hours spent patrolling the border rose by a factor of eight, while Bush’s 2008 budget called for $13 billion for border security and immigration enforcement. Yet, as Riley notes, “Our maniacal focus on enforcement has failed to stop illegal immigration. Increasing patrols in California and Texas has resulted in more crossings in Arizona and other regions, where mountains and desert have claimed at least 4,500 lives since 1994. The document-fraud industry is booming, and human smuggling fees have skyrocketed.” Meanwhile seasonal cross-border migration has declined because “the trip has become more treacherous.”
For all these strengths, it needs pointing out that Riley is a proud neoliberal, and rather than see migration from a humanitarian perspective, he views it through the prism of what will make the U.S. economy better able to compete with Europe and China. Therefore, migrant labor is good because it keeps the population young and “adds to the flexibility of labour markets.”
In his conclusion, Riley makes a naive plea to the Right to be consistent:
No self-respecting free-market adherent would ever dream of supporting laws that interrupt the free movement of goods and services across borders. But when it comes to laws that hamper the free movement of workers who produce these goods and services, too many conservatives abandon their classical liberal principles.
Yet while it seems irrational to Riley, erecting ever-greater barriers to migrants and demonizing them serves an important political purpose for the contemporary capitalist state. By encouraging native-born workers to blame migrants for the economic problems that they face, anti-immigrant racism divides the working class—the only force that can truly challenge the system that causes unemployment, higher interest rates and inflation.
Neoliberalism isn’t Riley’s only right-wing trait. The ugly side of his conservatism was on display in his Wall Street Journal column published the day the book came out. Titled “Keep the Immigrants, Deport the Multiculturalists,” he chastises “liberal elites who reject the concept of assimilation” and those who suggest that because “America slaughtered Indians and enslaved blacks…this wicked history means we have no right to impose a value system on others”.
Also, in defending Microsoft and Google’s right to recruit “talent” from Mumbai or Beijing, he makes the all too typical right-wing assertions about America’s public school system, which he says “is geared more toward appeasing teachers’ unions than educating kids.”
Riley’s book is a healthy demolition of the arguments of the racist Right. However, more progressive books advocating open-border migration include No One is Illegal, by Justin Akers Chacón and Mike Davis, and Open Borders, by Teresa Hayter.