Political Fear Drives the Immigration Panic

In the summer of 2015, during presidential primary season, I had a quick private conversation with a high-end professional, a well-educated CEO of a mid-sized company. Just in passing, the conversation turned to politics. He said, darkly and almost under his breath, “the demographics suggest that this is our last chance. We can’t blow it or we are doomed.”

That’s pretty ominous. It set me back a bit. This man believes in free enterprise, free trade, and, so far as I know, free migration. We are not talking about a rube or nativist here. Nor was it obvious to me at the time what he meant. Had he fallen for the century-ago pseudo-science about the Passing of the Great Race or some other pseudo-scientific blather from the Progressive Era? Surely not. This is an intelligent man.

I learned over the coming months that this man’s concern was hardly unique. An entire generation developed these fears throughout the 2010s. A candidate named Donald Trump knew it and tapped into it at a time when every other candidate for the presidency ignored it or remained tremendously naive. The days when Reagan and Bush sparred over who favored immigration the most were over.

The Rise of Fear

During the eight years of the Obama administration, a time of unrelenting re-regulation of the American economy and a ruinous reform of health care, a new sensibility took hold of many Republicans in the US, a sense that unless something dramatic changed, unless the demographics of the country were gamed somehow in their favor, the path to socialism would be unstoppable.

During these years, too, the demographics of voting became predictable and impossible to deny. Put in the starkest possible lines, the Democratic Party’s voter base began to depend ever less on the middle-class white population that had previously backed the Carter and Clinton administrations, and instead took on a new identitarian cast. The margin for reliable support instead would come from the estranged, the marginalized, the perpetually angry, and the outliers of American political opinion who longed for a fundamental upheaval in foundation American tenants of government.

It’s true that Obama himself – his name alone, his invocation of race, as well as his failure to connect with core American ideals of freedom and opportunity, at least in rhetoric – helped perpetuate this sense that American politics would heretofore be us vs. them. Tragically, the categories came to be defined by the demographics of race, religion, language, and national origin. When Hillary ran with the primary message that women as women must support her, she was following up on a theme that had already come to dominate the national narrative.

In retrospect, this was a perfect recipe for a nationalist backlash.

There Is No Vacuum

It has taken me a few years to see this. I had always considered the immigration debate as centering on economics, culture, and social considerations. Here the free migrations are wholly correct, and I’ve been a champion of open borders and still am. On every point, the facts are against those who would close the borders.

Contrary to the bromides, immigrants cause less crime than natives. Immigration does not cause unemployment. Immigrants don’t consume more public benefits than natives; in fact, they use fewer. Indeed, they have kept Social Security afloat, even though they will never get a dime from the system. They don’t love liberty less: they poll in as more libertarian. What’s more, dramatic increases in immigration would be fantastic for overall economic growth. You can get a full presentation of the realities at Cato’s excellent 14 Most Common Arguments Against Immigration.

Apparently, the facts don’t matter. And as for humane values and human rights, forget it. Immigration restriction is a fundamental attack on the rights of at least two parties: the person who wants to employ someone currently outside the border and the person who wants to come work. It’s a thuggish interference with an economic exchange, like any other arbitrary restriction on trade.

It’s a cliche but also true: the US was built by immigration. Not only from abroad. The very model of the United States relies on open borders between states. Imagine if the U.S. had massive border controls between states, with checkpoints and passports and drug-sniffing dogs, and if you had to have permission to change from a job in Ohio to a job in Vegas, or if a Virginian could be deported from New Jersey for overstaying, or if you had to wait years to obtain the right documentation to move from one state to another, or if the labor market was so tightly regulated that an employer in another state could only hire you if they could prove they had no other options.

But here is the clarifying fact: the economic and cultural conditions that allow free migration between states within the U.S. are identical with regard to free migration between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. The only difference happens to be the government that issues citizenship documents.

Every argument for immigration restrictions into the United States as a whole applies with equal validity for immigration controls between states, counties, cities, and even towns. And yet we do not have such controls.

The US is a land of immigration, a country that had no immigration control from long before its founding until the late 19th century, and no comprehensive and exclusionist plan until the wicked and eugenics-inspired legislation of 1924, which ended up trapping Jews in Europe during the rise of a killing machine. The world was supposed to learn from that disaster.

The Real Reason

Which finally leads us to the core issue: what is this immigration panic all about? I don’t deny that there is racism here. There is irrational fear. There is ignorance. But, in the end, I don’t believe these are the reason for the immigration panic. The actual reason is much more plain: it is about control of the political system. The Republicans have come to believe that unless they game the demographics of the country, they will be politically marginalized, throughout the country just as they came to be in California.

To be sure, this fear becomes self-fulfilling. If the GOP becomes the anti-immigrant party, they can’t expect to gain the voters of immigrant populations. If they become what is basically a “white people” party, the voter base then becomes self defining. This reality is the flipside of the bracing tweet sent by Trump: The Democrats “don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants... They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”

It’s true for both parties. Despite all the rhetoric, the debate over immigration isn’t really about human rights, economics, national security, or even culture change. Immigration policy has become an extension of national politics. Whoever wins gets to control the presidency. The people have become the fodder in a war for who gets to exercise power over whom.

If you doubt this, just imagine how different this "debate" over immigration would be if we didn't have a massive government with unlimited power, an unending contest for control of this state power, and mass democracy. I seriously doubt there would be anything like a populist movement to shut the borders.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and eight books in 5 languages. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. He is available for speaking and interviews via his emailTw | FB | LinkedIn