Immigration and Class Struggle

Consider the following paragraphs from an article in Salon about a recent immigration proposal:

“The proposal, then, is to turn most of today’s illegal immigrants in the U.S. into a new, legally resident class of non-citizen foreign serfs. They will be allowed (i.e., compelled) to work for American employers. But they will be denied all the benefits that go to the working citizen poor. And none of them will be eligible to vote for a decade and a half, at the earliest.

Quite apart from its inhumane treatment of illegal immigrants, this proposal is a direct assault on the rights and interests of native and naturalized American citizen-workers. American citizen-workers are threatened by anything that creates a multi-tier labor market inside U.S. borders. Allowing workers with different levels of rights to compete for the same jobs in the U.S. economy permits employers to pit one category of workers against another. And when one group has fewer rights and less bargaining power, many employers will prefer to hire them rather than the workers with more rights and greater bargaining power.”

There are a few distinct strands here, but the basic idea is that we shouldn’t allow immigrants into the country under a system that affords them fewer rights than other citizens because a) it is inhumane to the immigrants and b) it hurts American workers.

Eventually, the article advocates giving “clean, swift amnesty followed by full, equal citizenship” to the undocumented immigrants that are here while hoping that “new waves of illegal immigration could be deterred in the future.”

The combination of preferring total amnesty for existing immigrants while deterring future immigrants seemed a bit contradictory at first to me.  Why consider the welfare of current undocumented immigrants over next years undocumented immigrants?

The answer is that I don’t think the welfare of immigrants is really the author’s driving consideration.  The author is considering immigration as one aspect of a class struggle between labor and capital:

Capitalists benefit from more unskilled immigration because it drives down wages. They prefer not to give the immigrants too many rights because this probably tends to raise reservation wages. Labor would prefer to keep out the competition, but if it can’t prevent immigration outright, they would rather have voting immigrant laborers join their side to bolster their political power.

In short, capital prefers high levels of  immigration and low levels of immigrant rights while labor prefers low immigration and high immigrant rights.

Of course, not everyone fits into these categories, so I present to you my two dimensional immigration Quadrant graph:

Immigrant Quadrants

Note that the origin of this graph does not represent zero immigration or no rights.  The axes just represent “more” and “less” along two different dimensions. Also, the representative groups are not necessarily the only inhabitant of their quadrant.  For example, territorialists also occupy the spot I have attributed to labor.  Finally, when I use the word “rights” I don’t necessarily mean that there actually exists a set of natural rights that everyone is entitled to. You can replace this axis with “privileges,” “entitlements” or whatever suits you.

Perhaps you don’t agree with my placement of labor in the lower right corner in the first place.  Before you object too much, let me concede that not all of those who identify with the labor movement would fit in this quadrant.  But I think there is a pretty significant trend in this direction.  See, for example, this rambling socialist essay noting that the AFL-CIO changed their position to one more in support of immigrant labor rights and sponsored a series of demonstrations in support of immigrant rights.  They go on to urge “immediate and unconditional amnesty for all undocumented workers” and even “a living wage of $12.50 and free universal health care.”  At the same time they concede that a demand for open borders would be an “obstacle to dialogue between socialists and native born workers.”  To help the poor in other countries they support “assisting in the economic and social development of poor countries.”

So, basically, they want to offer full citizenship and benefits to immigrants in order to achieve labor solidarity and prevent capital from pitting different groups of labor against each other.  But since high levels of continued immigration would drive down wages we need to slow the process down.  Granted, they don’t actually say we need to build a wall on the border.  Maybe they actually believe that global economic aid to poor countries will suddenly start to work.  But the overriding goal is labor solidarity and ultimately this requires accepting those who are already here and making sure that we don’t get too many more.

So, assuming you agree with my quadrants, there are a few things to note.  First, class struggle is relevant to the immigration debate, but it is orthogonal to the Open Borders/Nativism divide.  Second, open borders advocates usually don’t  insist on zero volume restrictions and full rights for immigrants — they often consider keyhole solutions that involve some trading off of volumes and rights.  And my sense is that most open borders advocates would restrict rights before restricting volume.  I am probably in this camp personally. The fact that so many people are willing to come here illegally is evidence enough for me that the benefits (for immigrants) of increased immigration are enough to justify sacrificing some political privileges.

So it seems my preferred immigration policy would probably be beneficial for capital and detrimental to labor.  Since I don’t really have a dog in that fight, maybe I should think more about ways of implementing immigration reform that explicitly favor labor, such as using immigrant fees to help support a guaranteed minimum income.

Or should I simply advocate the immigration policy I think is right and ignore the impact it might have on class struggle?


6 thoughts on “Immigration and Class Struggle”

  1. I kind of like the diagram, but of course it doesn’t do justice to all the complexities involved. I am mostly an opponent of rights for immigrants over and above their right to migrate and to basic habeas corpus and property rights. I oppose them having access to welfare. In that sense, I might be in the “capital” quadrant rather than the “open borders” quadrant. But since I advocate DRITI taxes and transfers, in a way I’m a friend to the native worker, too. I think my scheme would serve the interests of American workers better than what this writer wants.

    I find the economics of the linked article somewhat sound, albeit the capital versus labor opposition is oversimplified. The ethics is less defensible. For example, he constantly calls “unfree” workers who come to the US voluntarily, albeit with less rights than citizens. No. They would freely agree to come, whereas now they are coerced to stay out.

    1. Do you think in an ideal world that immigrants should have fewer rights than native citizens or do you just find it politically expedient? Do you think native citizens should get welfare?

  2. Dear Michael Carey,

    What you need to do, and you need to promote is: reduce all immigration into America to less than 100,000 annually. Advocate for enforcing our current laws so that employers go to jail for hiring illegal migrants. Without jobs, those migrants go home and leave the job market open for the 48.1 million Americans subsisting on food stamps so they can obtain jobs. Your ‘stuff’ looks good on paper, but fails in reality. Additionally, America cannot continue endless immigration for the simple reason that we can sustain endless growth. Bite on these realities before you write your next diatribe:

    If we don’t halt population growth with justice and compassion, it will be done for us by nature, brutally and without pity – and will leave a ravaged world. ~Nobel Laureate Dr. Henry W. Kendall

    “The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical construct. To say, as many do, that the difficulties of nations are not due to people, but to poor ideology and land-use management is sophistic.” Harvard scholar and biologist E.O. Wilson

    “Unlimited population growth cannot be sustained; you cannot sustain growth in the rates of consumption of resources. No species can overrun the carrying capacity of a finite land mass. This Law cannot be repealed and is not negotiable.” Dr. Albert Bartlett, , University of Colorado, USA.

    “Most Western elites continue urging the wealthy West not to stem the migrant tide [that adds 80 million net gain annually to the planet], but to absorb our global brothers and sisters until their horrid ordeal has been endured and shared by all—ten billion humans packed onto an ecologically devastated planet.” Dr. Otis Graham, Unguarded Gates

    1. “What you need to do, and you need to promote is: reduce all immigration into America to less than 100,000 annually.”

      Why this number?

      “Without jobs, those migrants go home and leave the job market open for the 48.1 million Americans subsisting on food stamps so they can obtain jobs.”

      A significant number of SNAP recipients actually are employed to some degree or other, but aside from that, you seem to be asserting that immigrants “take jobs” from natives.

      This is generally not borne out in reality, since immigration also means more production (and therefore more demand for labor) and more division of labor (which makes labor more productive and therefore more valuable) I would consult the resources linked here:

      And here:

      “Your ‘stuff’ looks good on paper, but fails in reality.”

      With due respect, I might say the same of Malthusianism, given that the population has been expanding for centuries and yet resource costs are falling (, global poverty is falling ( and, and living standards are rising.

      “Additionally, America cannot continue endless immigration for the simple reason that we can sustain endless growth.”

      “Endless growth” is a strawman. No open borders proponent I am aware of calls for endless population growth. Nor will endless growth happen; world population is likely to peak some time before 2100 (, and the population growth rate has been falling for decades (

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