The Gang of Eight’s ‘Can’t Cut It’ Argument

by Andrew Stiles
Even the Times once recognized the threat low-skilled immigration presents to U.S. workers.

Amnesty would undermine the integrity of the country’s immigration laws and would depress the wages of its lowest-paid native-born workers. . . . The better course of action is to honor America’s proud tradition by continuing to welcome legal immigrants and find ways to punish employers who refuse to obey the law.

One might reasonably assume that these words were plucked from a recent National Review editorial inveighing against the Gang of Eight’s immigration-reform bill. In fact, the passage comes from a New York Times editorial published in February 2000 in response to the AFL-CIO’s call for the legalization of illegal immigrants, as well as the repeal of penalties for employers who hire them.

The union’s proposal was “unfair to unskilled workers already in the United States,” the Times’ editors argued, while noting the obvious benefits for Big Labor (“a huge new pool of unorganized workers”) and Big Business (access to “cheap labor”). It is an argument that many Democrats echoed when opposing President George W. Bush’s push for comprehensive immigration reform in 2006, specifically in regard to the proposed guest-worker program, which would have provided legal entry to more than half a million low-skilled workers.

These concerns have been largely absent from the current political discussion, not least because Democrats have declined to raise them. (When Republicans do, they are mocked.) The Gang of Eight’s proposed changes to the legal immigration system, for example, have been the subject of very little scrutiny. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Gang’s plan would admit nearly twice as many legal immigrants (38 million) over the next ten years as projected under current law (22 million). Because many of those new immigrants, including guest workers, would be low-skilled, the CBO estimates that the “influx” of immigrant workers would result in a reduction in average wages and an increase in unemployment, relative to current law, over the next decade.

“It’s the least popular part of the bill, and is conveniently the least polled, and least discussed,” says a GOP aide opposed to the Gang of Eight plan. Mainstream pollsters haven’t bothered to gauge public support for a dramatic increase in low-skilled immigrant labor, but a National Journal poll from late June that found only 22 percent of Americans in favor of increasing high-skilled immigration suggests the aide is onto something.

These particular aspects of the Gang of Eight bill were the result of a grand bargain between Big Labor (the AFL-CIO) and Big Business (the Chamber of Commerce), both of which, as the Times noted more than a decade ago, stand to benefit from an influx of low-skilled immigrant workers. Democrats and their liberal allies in the media are fond of pointing out that “even the Chamber of Commerce” supports a pathway to citizenship, alluding to its conservative leanings. But, of course, the Chamber has obvious good reasons to lobby for cheap, amnestied labor and something like the guest-worker program that many Democrats found so objectionable in 2006. “This may be the first time the liberal media has actively shilled for Big Business,” the GOP aide quips.

The Chamber’s support for the Gang’s bill is a complicating factor for the GOP, which has traditionally aligned itself with the business community but remains divided on immigration reform. Some efforts to make an economic case for comprehensive reform have backfired. “There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can’t cut it,” an unnamed aide to Senator Marco Rubio told The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza in June. “There shouldn’t be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can’t get it, can’t do it, don’t want to do it. And so you can’t obviously discuss that publicly.”

Opponents of the Gang of Eight bill might question the political wisdom of promoting legislation that would dramatically increase the population of low-skilled workers — at a time of high unemployment and low wage growth — on the grounds that American workers “can’t cut it.” However, that’s exactly what some Republican lawmakers appear to be doing.

Last week, Alabama representative Spencer Bachus explained his support for immigration reform by recounting a conversation he’d had with a local Chick-fil-A restaurant owner, who suggested that immigrant workers were preferable to American workers because they never ask for a raise or promotion.

Representative Ted Poe of Texas, who is co-authoring a House guest-worker bill with Idaho’s Raul Labrador, recently attended a panel discussion on immigration reform with a group of business executives, during which the conversation seemed to center on the fact that American workers “can’t cut it” in certain industries, such as construction and food service. “We have found in the past that they apply for jobs, American workers, that they were really only checking a box so they could keep their public benefits,” said one attendee, the CEO of a construction company in Houston. Poe’s bill will reportedly include even more visas for low-skilled guest workers than would the Senate bill (a higher number could well strain the labor side of the Chamber-CIO alliance).

At the very least, some Republicans are attempting to discuss a woefully under-scrutinized aspect of immigration reform. Meanwhile, it’s not surprising that the rhetorical case put forward by GOP supporters of the Gang of Eight — which at times can resemble popular leftist arguments — appears to be winning few converts.

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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