Politics & Policy

Hillary’s Class Bias on Immigration

(Mike Blake/Reuters)
She has made some eye-opening comments.

If you ever believed that Hillary Clinton’s immigration stance was driven by anything other than cynical opportunism, you may want to reconsider.

Already, Clinton has adopted a Merkel-like position on immigration. During the Democratic primaries, eager to avoid the ghosts of some unsavory comments she made in 2014, Clinton espoused a doctrine of open borders. “I would not deport children,” she said in March. “I do not want to deport family members either.” In other words: If you come here with your family, you will be allowed to stay. And if you’re already here illegally, Clinton believes in creating a path to citizenship for you, with or without Congress’s consent.

None of these views place her outside the Democratic mainstream, at least as it stands at the moment. But of late her immigration stance has become incoherent. She still wants immigration reform, but now it seems like a path to citizenship is all such reform entails, at least on the first go-round. In a recent interview with Ezra Klein of Vox, Clinton said she opposes a plan that would also deal with reforms to the process by which high-skilled immigrants are granted visas:

Comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship would deal with a lot of these concerns, not just the 11 million people here: how we would regularize them, what kind of steps they’d have to go through. Because I believe they do have to meet certain standards if they’re going to be on a path to citizenship.

But I don’t want to mix that with other kinds of changes in visas and other concerns that particularly high-value technical companies have. In fact, I think keeping the pressure on them helps us resolve the bigger problem, and then we can look to see what else, if anything, can and should be done [emphasis added].

Put another way, Hillary Clinton not only believes that visa reform for high-skilled workers shouldn’t be part of immigration reform, but also that visa reform might not be a good idea at all. Clinton has taken the exact inverse position of the subset of economists who argue that an influx of high-skilled immigration, facilitated by visa reform, is an unequivocal economic good, and that the economic effects of low-skilled immigration are less positive. For some reason, she views the issues of visa reform and a path to citizenship as mutually exclusive, rather than symbiotic. Accordingly, she would focus on a path to citizenship while consciously rejecting efforts to reform the visa system.

Why is that? Because holding the sword of Damocles over the heads of the companies that rely on high-skilled immigrants is a more expedient way for her to push through her policy agenda (“the bigger problem”). It seems likely that Clinton believes she can leverage the promise of future visa reform to secure the support of tech companies for her path-to-citizenship efforts in the present.

Hillary looks at the immigration issue as a surefire way to boost Latino turnout in battleground states.

There’s another reason, too. It’s fairly obvious from the interview that Clinton conceives of immigration more as a political problem than as a moral one. This is not to say that she is wholly cynical and sees no moral problems with the immigration status quo; it’s just that she looks at the issue, first and foremost, as a surefire way to boost Latino turnout in battleground states such as Florida — states that might otherwise break for Trump.

This shouldn’t be so surprising. In American politics, protectionism is the order of the day; thanks to Trump and Bernie Sanders, there are now whole swaths of voters on the left and the right with a visceral distrust of free trade. Clinton, faced with Sanders’s unexpectedly stiff challenge, tacked to the left on trade, coming out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Read a bit further in the Vox interview and it becomes clear that Clinton views her immigration stance as, in some sense, a protectionist measure designed to impede the outsourcing of jobs:

I would add that one of the biggest complaints I hear around the country is how callous and insensitive American corporations have become to American workers who have skills that are ones that should make them employable [emphasis added]. The many stories of people training their replacements from some foreign country are heartbreaking, and it is obviously a cost-cutting measure to be able to pay people less than you would pay an American worker. . . . I want to see companies have to do more to employ already qualified Americans.

This is more nefarious that it seems, or than it would be if Clinton were consistent in her protectionism. She doesn’t like foreign workers coming and taking high-skilled American jobs, jobs held by people who “have skills that are ones that should make them employable.” Jobs held, perhaps, by the sort of people who voted for her. The sort of people whose donations fill her campaign’s coffers.

For Clinton, high-skilled jobs should — for some reason — fall into the category of jobs worth protecting. If there exists an American with the requisite skills for such a job, he should be hired and certainly shouldn’t be forced to train his own replacement. But she doesn’t maintain the same stance for unskilled jobs. Maybe this is urban disdain for unskilled workers; maybe it’s because blue-collar Americans weren’t part of the coalition that helped her beat Sanders and won’t be part of the coalition that tries to help her beat Trump. In either case, it’s a sign that Clinton does not view all jobs equally, and for reasons that aren’t entirely savory, besides.

There are cultural consequences to this political stance. The jobs of the working class, the unskilled workers who have already suffered most from the effects of globalization, are viewed as far less important than those of their Silicon Valley compatriots and the supposed “rights” of people who have come to this country through a subversion of the law. This stance is likely only to make the divide between urban cultural elites and disaffected post-industrial nationalists worse. In a sense, it’s also a reminder that progressive leaders have long paid mere lip service to the class struggle that is ostensibly a core tenet of their politics. Give Clinton credit for this much, however: At least we know where her priorities lie.

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