The Most Privileged Target the Most Disadvantaged

Opportunity means having the option to work towards a life with sufficient or even prodigious resources. Unfortunately, equal opportunity does not exist either within or between countries. Differences in opportunity are, however, especially pronounced between countries. This is a major reason why open borders is so attractive; open borders would reduce the opportunity gap by allowing those who live in countries with very little opportunity to improve their circumstances by moving to a country with more opportunity. It is also why efforts by the most privileged individuals in developed countries to deny open borders to the disadvantaged of less developed countries are so egregious.

The hierarchy of opportunity in the world looks roughly like this. The most privileged are those born into wealth in both developed and less developed countries. Next on the rung would be those born into the middle class of the developed countries. (It is unclear where the middle classes of the less developed countries would appear on the hierarchy; it probably depends on the individual country.) The working classes in the developed countries would follow, with those in countries with stronger safety nets above the U.S. working class. The poor in developed countries would follow, with the poor in less developed countries occupying the bottom. This group itself could be ordered according to the level of poverty and political dysfunction they experience. At the very bottom would be residents of Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan, where people must survive apocalyptic conditions.

The wealthy U.S. President Donald Trump has always occupied the top level of this hierarchy. He was born into wealth in a stable liberal democracy (which some would argue he is working to undermine). Chuck Collins, author of Born on Third Base, notes that Trump “was set-up for success.”

Rather than adopt a perspective of noblesse oblige, Trump is targeting those at the bottom levels of the privilege hierarchy: undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and would-be immigrants from poor and/or violent countries. (The majority of undocumented immigrants come from Mexico and other less developed countries.) The Trump administration has moved to make it easier to deport people. It is also attempting to ensure the detention of asylum seekers from Central America while their cases are pending and to punish Central American parents for trying to get their children into the U.S. His homeland security secretary even raised the idea of separating children and parents who arrive in the U.S. from Central America to deter others from coming, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to make cases against those who cross the border illegally a higher priority. Trump also has promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and has tried to stop the entrance of Syrian refugees into the U.S. altogether.

Trump is not the only very privileged American to target disadvantaged immigrants and refugees. Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin is the chairman of the House immigration subcommittee. He supported a 2005 bill that would have made being in the U.S. without authorization a criminal offense. According to The New York Times, he “has no tolerance for illegal immigrants, either in his political life or personal life.” At the same time, he is also among the wealthiest members of Congress, with a net worth of almost $25 million in 2014. The New York Times reports that he received “a fortune” from a great-grandfather, and ABC News lists him among the “top five political heirs.”

While apparently not born into wealth, Jeff Sessions, Trump’s aforementioned attorney general, was listed among the wealthiest members of Congress, with a net worth of over $7 million in 2014. The Washington Post has noted that in his previous job as senator “Sessions has opposed nearly every immigration bill that has come before the Senate the past two decades that has included a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.”

At the same time, apparently more privileged Americans, as represented by a higher level of education, are generally more receptive to immigration than their less privileged peers. In fact, a National Academy of Sciences report suggests that well off Americans benefit from immigration. Thomas Edsall quotes from the report: “In summary, the immigration surplus stems from the increase in the return to capital that results from the increased supply of labor and the subsequent fall in wages. Natives who own more capital will receive more income from the immigration surplus than natives who own less capital, who can consequently be adversely affected.” (Note that some economists assert that immigrants have little or no effect on workers with relatively little education.)

So it is surprising when privileged Americans voice opposition to immigration, since they apparently gain financially from it. Of course, such individuals may be concerned about the cultural impact associated with immigration, or they may be concerned about its impact on their disadvantaged compatriots. Or, if running for public office, they may be cynically appealing to voters’ fears about immigrants.

Whatever their motivation, from a moral perspective it is appalling when privileged Americans, among the most privileged people in the world, oppose the immigration of individuals who are among the most disadvantaged. It is especially disconcerting when they have the political power to realize this opposition, as in the cases of Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, and James Sensenbrenner.

Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

6 thoughts on “The Most Privileged Target the Most Disadvantaged”

  1. It would be very easy to point out any number of privileged people who are on the open borders side of the argument. The individuals you cite are to some extent privileged because they represent a great number of less privileged people who would bear more of the costs associated with a more open immigration system.

  2. I completely agree. It is important that we work towards not only equal opportunity within American society, but globally. Open boarders would open doors to opportunity for everyone!!! I find it very interesting that privileged Americans are more likely to financially benefit from immigration, but are also more likely to oppose it. We need to put the world in perspective and appreciate how privileged we are!

  3. I find you stance on the open borders topic quite interesting and I have to say I do grr with you. I often wonder why it is so threatening to some to bridge the opportunity gap and make it easier for some to attain a better life. Perhaps, the gap is a comfortable thing for those at the top.

    It is true that the increase of immigration would increase the supply laboring, thus decreasing the price. This is good for those at the top because they would be able to pay lower wages than before.

    For those lower on the tier it could pose a greater problem. It would increase completion for jobs, making it harder to find one.

    This confuses the situation more because why, then, wouldn’t the richer population want immigration. Are they really looking out for the citizens near the bottom?

  4. I think your case is very simplistic it assumes that a disadvantaged immigrant wants the same benefits as the nation in which it migrates to. There is plenty of evidence to show this not always the case ie, your values may not be compatible. It is not only an economic issue. Changing the size of a population impacts social services eg. Schools, hospitals etc and imports cultural gulfs in what is acceptable behaviour. So for an indigenous population you are advocating social anarchy as seen today in Italy/Greece today.

    You advocation may be born from good intention but I see scary parallels with the birth of Communism in Europe/China and will result in the same level of misery.

  5. Great article. One thing that some people that don’t take into account when arguing against immigration in the U.S. is how greatly it impacted our economy. Similarly to the illegal immigrants from Mexico in the United states today, many Americans were not interested in working certain low wage jobs (factories, low wage manual labor etc.) back in the late 19th/ early 20th century. Between 1880 and 1930 over 27 million immigrants came to united states from many different regions in Europe and Asia. These people played a major part in shaping the United States economy to what it is today. This topic is not new in America, and will most likely always be a topic that will be debated.

  6. I agree with Joel Newman’s point of view that we Americans fear letting immigrants into our country. We find it threatening for other to take our precious American jobs. If we were to draw a demand and supply curve we could see the effects of immigrants coming into the United States. The supply curve would shift to the right due to there being more workers. This would obviously decrease the wages. However, there is more to look at than this simple model. The immigrants that come over always have a demand for a job. This makes them more likely to accept any low paying job with somewhat bad working conditions. This indicates that these immigrants are not aiming towards the same jobs that American-born citizens are aiming for. In contrast, immigrants aim for jobs such as caregivers, field workers, restaurant workers or even factory workers. Employers need a source of cheap labor and that is what these immigrants are to these employers. Without these cheap labor source, we as a nation would not be able to compete against foreign rivals who have cheap labor. Of course many would argue that a simple fix to that is taxing foreign goods, but if the foreign goods have a better quality and are cheaper to produce people would not mind paying a premium for these goods.
    What most people fight for is to keep jobs American, but what they do not realize is that if employers do not find a cheap source of labor they will simply outsource to countries with fewer regulations. In that case, the job will no longer even be in the United States and it would contribute to exploitation elsewhere.
    In addition, immigrants give a demand for labor which is good for GDP as a whole. The reason behind this is because they to have needs. Simply put these immigrants are potential customers for our markets. Before, these people would not even have the money to buy anything besides basic goods. If we employ them, we basically give them resources to put money into circulation in our economy which is good. This means more goods and services are being purchased in our domestic markets.
    As mentioned before immigrants are more willing to take less desirable jobs. They are also more willing to move as the demand moves. For example, let’s say that certain seasons in different states have crops which grow. If in one season the place to be for field work is California, then these immigrants will be in California. If the next place to be is Washington, then they will go to Washington. From an economic viewpoint, this is good since they can stimulate different parts of the United States. This will cause places who are slowly deteriorating to boom. This will also increase the amount of food that is produced.
    Another point to mention is that of how low-skilled immigrants can make the nation more efficient. As mentioned before immigrants often take the role of caregivers. The odds that two high skilled workers are married is high. When this couple has children then the mother is likely to stay behind to look after and care for the newborn. Also, there are other house tasks such as washing clothes, cleaning, cooking and the list goes on. If there is a low skilled worker to do these tasks for minimal pay, then everyone is better off. The low-skilled worker gets paid of course. Then the high skilled couple can go off to make use of their actual talent. This allows for both skilled workers to spend more time in their job and allows for an increase in productivity. In a way, this is helping the United States push its production possibility frontier outward.
    Overall immigration and an open border are beneficial for everyone in the United States and for them immigrants themselves. The native nation of these immigrants often lacks property rights, political stability, and a dependable legal system. For these reasons, they seek these opportunities here in the United States.

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