Trump is half-right on immigration

President Trump listens during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration.
President Trump listens during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration. The Washington Post

Negative reactions to Trump’s plan to reduce legal immigration by half are misguided. Both liberal and conservative pundits claim that, contrary to historical reality, immigration doesn’t depress wages.

The cover story of Business North Carolina magazine stated otherwise. Under the headline, “Down Mexico Way,” the sub-head pointed out that “Illegal immigration is suppressing Tar Heel wages, but this boon to business also is creating a new underclass.”

It reported the results of a study by the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC Chapel Hill. The study found that “Three-quarters of North Carolina’s Hispanics work in four industries—construction, wholesale and retail trade, manufacturing and agriculture. Native construction workers have felt the impact the most. In 2002, their wages were 7.4 percent less than they would have been without the impact of Hispanic labor. Farm wages were 6.6 percent lower.”

President Trump is an ineffective demagogue who is a threat to our democracy and to our survival on this fragile and dangerous earth. But establishment liberals and conservatives make a mistake if they continue to deny their role in creating Trump’s appeal to his thirty-some percent solid supporters.

Liberals have supported increased immigration because they wanted to aid those fleeing oppression or simply seeking a better life. Conservatives supported immigration because it lowers labor costs. Lower labor costs result in higher business profits and investor incomes, and cheaper prices for consumer products and services.

Although higher-income liberals and conservatives benefit from immigration, those who compete with lower-income immigrants for jobs lose income. Increasing the labor supply, or going to where labor is cheaper, has always been corporate-America’s number one strategy for higher profits.

Although globalization and automation are the main causes of wage stagnation and decline today, immigration is also a visible and obvious contributor. When establishment politicians fail to recognize that reality—and fail to do something to reduce the growing disparity in income caused by pro-capital/anti-labor policies—they create fertile ground for the rise of a strong-man demagogue.

The argument that we need immigrants because Americans refuse to do certain jobs betrays a fundamental anti-labor bias. It says, for example, that back-breaking health-destroying agricultural jobs don’t meet the standards of an affluent and civilized society. So let’s bring in desperate immigrants who will do anything to survive.

A liberal alternative would be to raise the pay of workers doing those jobs, and to reduce work-hours with ample breaks and job rotation. This would result in higher costs to consumers. However, a better balance between worker incomes and the incomes of America’s billionaires and multi-millionaires would result in workers having more money for necessities like a decent diet.

Financial conservatives say that our economy needs the skills of qualified immigrants who can fill job vacancies. This is where Trump is wrong. We now lack qualified workers because globalization encouraged corporations to educate cheaper foreign workers rather than American workers. Now they want to import those American trained workers back into the U.S.

Trump’s policies would make our own higher-educated workers, even engineers and scientists, compete with lower wage counterparts from other countries. Instead, we need to do a better job of educating our own citizens.

Chuck Kelly is author of “The Destructive Achiever; power and ethics in the American Corporation.” He can be reached at kellycm2@bellsouth.net.