Why Conservatives Should Support Illegal Immigration
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A Way to Get Back to the Gilded Age
I have heard it argued on many occasions that the American economy is being held back by excessive government regulation. Due to burdensome regulations regarding work conditions, environmental protection, product safety, and other miscellaneous issues, American businesses struggle to compete with foreign companies that do not face such strict rules. As a historian, I understand why these types of regulations evolved over time. But as a non-businessman, I recognize my own ignorance, acknowledging that there are probably some regulations out there that do more harm than good.
The golden age of deregulation was in the late 19th century, which was something of a libertarian paradise. Income taxes had not yet some into existence. Labor unions typically lost their battles against employers, and the government had not yet been pressured to implement things like a minimum wage, eight-hour workdays, or bans on child labor. Concerns about the environmental damage of modern industry were virtually nonexistent. Huge corporations increasingly dominated the economy, and the “captains of industry” were allowed to enjoy the fruits of their entrepreneurial innovation.
Large corporations also benefited from a massive influx of immigrants, with the majority of these people flowing in from Europe. Cheap labor was in plentiful supply, and unions were weakened by this mass of potential strikebreakers. But this laissez faire, low-cost labor paradise began to fade away by the early 20th century, first with Progressive Era (and later New Deal) reforms, and second with 1920’s immigration restrictions. Wide open borders, weak unions, and “sweatshop” conditions were now (apparently) a thing of the past.
Over the past thirty years, however, many corporations have managed to recapture some aspects of the “Gilded Age” by shifting operations overseas. Instead of immigrants flowing into the United States to work in lousy conditions, corporations have gone overseas to where the cheap laborers (and softer regulations) reside. This outsourcing, however, has led to a bit of a political backlash, particularly among those with liberal political views. It has also caused some anger (and unemployment) in industries hit hard by outsourcing, particularly in the manufacturing sector. Conservatives, however, tend to defend outsourcing, arguing that businesses are forced to do this out of economic necessity. And they can counteract angry liberals by claiming that unions, excessive taxes, and government regulations have been the main factors in driving jobs out of the country.
But there is a less politically costly way for conservatives to keep some of this cheap labor in this country. Illegal immigrants, by definition, often live and work in the shadows, not subject to government regulations. If they work in an underground cash economy, employers have the benefit of avoiding labor regulations and of not having to raise pay rates in order to offset taxes. It is the closest that a 21st century American employer can get to the “Gilded Age.” Of course, some illegal immigrants work in a quasi-legal fashion, utilizing fake social security cards, paying some taxes, and working for employers subject to government regulations. But even when working in this quasi-legal fashion, illegal immigrants benefit employers by pushing wages downward. So just as in the late 19th century, it is in the interest of American businesses to have as many immigrants as possible.
So if cheap, domestic labor is good for American businesses, then why is the Republican Party, which is generally perceived as more business-friendly than Democrats, so hostile toward illegal immigration? How can people who claim that deregulation is a key to American success oppose the steady increase of the least regulated workforce in the country? This is largely because the modern Republican Party is a strange hybrid of economic and social conservatism. Some are in the Party because they favor its “laissez-faire,” low tax policies while others are more attracted to its evangelical Christian, family values, and “traditional American” viewpoints. Amazingly, the GOP has done a terrific job of convincing people that economic and social conservatism go naturally together. Obviously, Jesus opposed excessive government regulation, hated welfare programs, supported gun ownership, wanted low income taxes, was obsessed about the gay agenda, and opposed an excessive number of foreign immigrants entering his country.
The problem is that this reliance on the social conservative vote may be harming the agenda of the pro-business, economic conservatives. So is it possible that this issue could threaten the conservative coalition? Based on recent experience, I am confident that the GOP can hold things together. In spite of the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans, Republicans have dominated Congress for most of the last twenty years and has controlled the White house for 28 of the last 44 years. And this success cannot simply be attributed to its support of popular tax cuts and its (mostly) rhetoric about shrinking government. They have also done a terrific job of using emotional, hot-button social issues to get people to the polls. And people are more motivated when there is a sense that they are losing the battle. So if abortion stays legal, and gay marriage grows in acceptance, opponents of these “sins” will be more riled up than if they were banned. I suspect that illegal immigration works the same way. So instead of passing meaningful, practical reforms to improve the system, it is best to allow a certain number of illegal immigrants to reside here in order to keep people angry. You can then stir up the base with strong rhetoric and impractical laws likely to be struck down by the courts, and the plentiful supply of cheap, unregulated labor will not be threatened.
If economics were the only concern, and conservatives truly believe that low-wage, unregulated labor is a key to economic success, then the GOP should be pushing for an increase in immigration from poor nations. As in the late 19th century, this would have a tendency to push wages down and make American businesses more profitable and competitive. But since social conservatives believe that the American way of life – whatever the hell that is - would be threatened by excessive immigration, the GOP must please the base with strong rhetoric and occasional action. In this political climate, therefore, we are unlikely see Reagan-era work visa programs that were once endorsed by President George W. Bush. And as long as we have a bad economy with plenty of unemployed workers, I expect the increased hostility toward illegal immigrants to continue. But when the economy improves, I expect the increased flow of illegal immigrants, along with lax enforcement, to return once again, with Republican leaders responding more with words than with meaningful action. Politicians are smart enough to realize that cheap labor is vital to the functioning of the economy, and business interests trump social concerns every time. As with all “social” issues, the government has a limited impact on the culture and the values of Americans anyway. But the government can do a lot of things to benefit businesses, which are happy to return the favor with hefty campaign contributions. And whatever is good for business is good for America.