Opinion

Reihan Salam

To win votes, the GOP should focus on jobs, not immigration

Reihan Salam
Jan 31, 2014 19:01 UTC

One of the most curious political developments in recent memory is House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to press for a new Republican immigration bill before addressing America’s bona fide jobs crisis. Immigration reform is important. Many conservatives are convinced that unless the GOP deals with the challenges facing unauthorized immigrants who have been living and working in the country for years, it will never build trust with voters with strong ties to immigrant communities. This is no small thing in a country in which 13 percent of the population is foreign-born and another 11 percent of the population has at least one foreign-born parent.

But it’s not at all clear that passing an immigration bill will suddenly lead immigrant voters and their children to flock to the GOP, not least because it is all but guaranteed that Democrats will attack the GOP for not going far enough. If Republicans offer unauthorized immigrants legal status without citizenship, Democrats will accuse them of creating millions of second-class non-citizens. And if, as seems likely, Boehner’s immigration push will lead to a substantial increase in less-skilled immigration, it will divide the right, and for good reason.

If Republicans want to build trust with voters — foreign-born and otherwise — they ought to instead pass a serious jobs bill. In his State of the Union address, President Obama made it clear that he will use raising the federal minimum wage as a wedge issue to put GOP lawmakers on the back foot, and there is at least some reason to believe that he will succeed. A Gallup survey from late last year found that 58 percent of Republicans favored a substantial minimum wage hike, a fact that has greatly complicated conservative efforts to beat back a policy they fear will dampen future job growth. The perfect populist issue has fallen into the president’s lap, and a GOP immigration reform push will do nothing to dull its effectiveness.

The president and his allies are also stepping up the pressure on extending long-term unemployment benefits. House Republicans insist that they are open to the idea of an extension if the extension is paid for through future budget cuts. That nuance has been lost as Democrats campaign on GOP indifference to the fate of jobless Americans. The irony is not lost on conservatives who believe, and are right to believe, that the Obama administration is at least partly responsible for the plight of the long-term unemployed.

The overall number of unemployed workers in the U.S. is 10.4 million. Though some share of this unemployment is frictional — the inevitable to-ing and fro-ing of workers that you’ll see in even the healthiest economic environment — much of it is not. Across the country, there are 3.8 million Americans who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer. Though this number has declined since December of last year, when it was 4.7 million, it remains scandalously high. And the ravages of long-term unemployment ripple out beyond the 3.8 million or so who are directly impacted, to their extended families and even their neighbors. Democrats are increasingly turning to legalistic maneuvers to address this problem. Apart from extending long-term unemployment benefits, the Obama administration wants to ban firms from discriminating against the long-term unemployed, a policy that threatens to generate more lawsuits than job growth. Yet Democrats have benefited from the fact that the GOP has failed to unite around a jobs agenda of its own.

How computerized work affects immigration

Reihan Salam
Jul 19, 2013 14:53 UTC

In 1900, 41 percent of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture. One hundred years later, that share had declined to 1.9 percent. Over that interval, the jobs that were easy and cheap to mechanize were mechanized, and now we are left with a handful of jobs that machines find extremely difficult to do. Machines can’t make strategic decisions about which crops to grow, and as a general rule they can’t fix themselves, so that leaves a significant role for managers and mechanics. Until recently, machines were also really bad at doing things like picking heads of lettuce and other delicate crops, as this requires a deftness of hand and an attention to detail that machines lack.

This is why the agricultural sector continues to have an appetite for less-skilled labor, which has been a huge driver of the recent comprehensive immigration reform effort. The idea is that because native-born Americans will never pick cucumbers — or at least because they will never pick cucumbers at a wage that would make for affordable cucumbers — we need a steady supply of less-skilled, low-wage workers to keep farms that grow cucumbers and lettuce and other delicate crops viable.

Now, however, a number of innovative firms have developed machines that use sophisticated sensors and an enormous amount of raw computing power to do jobs that had once been beyond the reach of machines. The reporters Gosia Wozniacka and Terence Chea recently described a Lettuce Bot that can “thin” a lettuce field in the time it would take twenty workers to do the same. Though the Lettuce Bot and machines like it remain expensive, there is every reason to believe that prices will fall. These picking machines are not quite good enough to pick fresh-market fruit, but they’re getting there. The reason these machines are being developed is the same reason agribusiness interests have been agitating for a substantial increase in less-skilled immigration: the supply of workers willing to work the fields is not big enough to keep wages extremely low, and so farms have been desperate for low-cost alternatives.

Pushing the immigration debate to the next level

Reihan Salam
Jun 21, 2013 17:08 UTC

It is often said that America is “a nation of immigrants.” But that’s not true in the strictest sense. As of the 2010 Census, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population was 12.9 percent, and so 87.1 percent of Americans that year were native-born non-immigrants. Granted, the nation of immigrants line tends to be used figuratively, to indicate that virtually all Americans come from somewhere else if you go back far enough. That includes the members of the indigenous communities that had settled in what is now the United States many centuries ago, and the descendants of the enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas against their will. Yet when we use nation of immigrants so loosely, it loses all meaning.

And when you compare the foreign-born share of the U.S. population to other countries, you soon realize that while the absolute number of immigrants living in the U.S. is very large, we’re nowhere near countries like tiny Qatar, where over three-quarters of the population consists of foreign-born individuals, most of whom are guest workers, or Canada, where the foreign-born share is a robust 20.6 percent. The U.S. is roughly in the same ballpark as countries like Germany and Sweden, which have become major destinations for immigrants only in recent decades.

So what would it mean for America’s foreign-born population to dramatically increase in the coming decades? That is the question we ought to be asking ourselves in light of the new Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Senate immigration bill. At first, many observers focused on CBO projecting that because the Senate immigration bill will tend to increase the U.S. working-age population while not increasing the number of retirees, at least not yet, it will tend to increase economic growth, raise tax revenues, and cut the deficit. Over the first decade, the CBO projects that deficits will decrease by $200 billion relative to the current law baseline, while they will decrease by $700 billion over the second decade.

Why is immigration reform taking so long?

Reihan Salam
Apr 4, 2013 19:32 UTC

You’d think comprehensive immigration reform legislation would be a done deal. President Barack Obama has promised to overhaul immigration policy since his 2008 campaign, and leading Republicans have been keen to do the same in the wake of the last presidential election. Last week the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, representing the interests of Corporate America and organized labor, respectively, endorsed a series of reform proposals, including a substantial increase in work visas and labor-friendly prevailing wage requirements. A bipartisan group of eight senators has been working toward a deal, and a bipartisan group of eight House members is also in on the act. So what’s the holdup?

The basic problem is beautifully illustrated by two little controversies, one sparked by liberals and the other by conservatives. On the left, there is a widely held belief that U.S. immigration laws are far too stringent, and that we’re not doing enough to help low-income immigrants become citizens. On the right, there is an equally common conviction that U.S. immigration laws should not, as a general rule, have the effect of expanding the number of people who depend on means-tested government benefits to maintain a decent standard of living.

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Rahm Emanuel, the blustery mayor of Chicago and Obama’s former chief of staff, and Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois congressman who represents a large share of Chicago’s Latino population, argue that, in order to apply for citizenship, Citizenship and Immigration Services is charging immigrants too steep a price – $680, including a fee for fingerprinting. Emanuel and Gutierrez observe that as the fee has increased over the past decade the number of lawful permanent residents who apply for citizenship has declined. They neglect the possibility that other factors could be at play.

Fixing immigration, but not necessarily the Rubio way

Reihan Salam
Jan 22, 2013 22:44 UTC

In U.S. political debates, there is a tendency to separate economic issues, like taxes, spending and regulation, from social issues, like abortion rights, gay rights and gun rights. Immigration, as a general rule, tends to fall in this latter bucket, as an issue that comes up mainly because it matters to Latino and Asian voters and a handful of vocal immigration restrictionists.

There is a decent case that immigration should really be understood as an economic issue – indeed, as the most important economic issue facing U.S. policymakers. That is part of why Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has attracted so much attention for his recent call for comprehensive immigration reform, a call echoed by voices across the political spectrum, including President Barack Obama’s. But Rubio’s plan has been met with considerable resistance, in large part because debates over immigration policy also have a moral dimension. Understanding it is key to breaking out of our immigration impasse. 

But first, it is important to understand why the immigration issue is gaining momentum. Back in 2011, J.P. Morgan released a report that found that U.S. households own $70 trillion in physical and financial assets. This same report found that America’s stock of human capital, i.e., the collective education and experience of all U.S. workers, amounted to $700 trillion. Rather than pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into new roads, bridges and housing units, the surest and cheapest strategy for increasing our collective wealth is to import talented workers. Even as the United States is mired in a sluggish semi-recovery, vast numbers of skilled English-speaking foreigners are eager to settle in, to start  businesses and buy homes. These keen would-be immigrants represent low-hanging economic fruit, a fact that is well understood in Silicon Valley and Wall Street, where high-wattage immigrants have made an outsized contribution.

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