Immigration policy in the United States largely refuses to prioritize the interests of American workers over those of their foreign counterparts. Beholden to tropes about “jobs Americans won’t do,” politicians and business leaders tend to favor high levels of immigration to solve short-term problems, heedless of the long-term economic and cultural costs. Donald Trump set himself firmly against that complacent consensus from the beginning of his campaign — which is why his nomination of Andy Puzder as labor secretary is eyebrow-raising. Puzder — head of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of fast-food chains such as Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s — is among the most prominent advocates of Gang of Eight–style immigration reform in the American business community, and if confirmed he will have the lead role in shaping and executing American labor policy.
The general role of the Labor Department over the last several years, as it relates to immigration, has been to rubber-stamp the cost-cutting measures businesses have used to undercut American workers. Citing a nonexistent labor shortage, large technology companies have used the H-1B visa program to import tech workers and pay them well below the prevailing wage (in violation of the law, often). Likewise, there is no indication that Ferris wheels will go unmanned if carnival operators cannot bring in Guatemalans, but Capitol Hill caters generously to the small segment of business interests that benefit from the H-2B program, which allows employers to import guest workers for temporary, non-agricultural enterprises. Last December, Republicans even used the omnibus bill to sneak in a temporary fourfold increase in the number of H-2B visas.
There is strong evidence that high levels of low-skilled immigration force wages downward. There are also long-term social costs when native-born citizens see their opportunities for advancement narrow or find themselves squeezed out of the job market altogether. And cultural fragmentation and ethnic resentments are fostered by an immigration policy that thoughtlessly reduces everything to dollars and cents.
Andy Puzder has tended to trade in clichés about immigration, rather than address these important costs. He wrote in Politico in 2013 that “the fact is that there are jobs in this country that U.S. citizens, for whatever reason, are reluctant or unwilling to perform. We need realistic and enforceable reform.” For Puzder, that was the Gang of Eight bill. Arguing in favor of the legislation, and in support of increased low-skilled immigration generally, at an event at the American Enterprise Institute in June 2013, he suggested that amnesty for illegal immigrants residing in the country would create a new source of labor and consumption, and that the most “troubling” part of the bill was its inclusion of stricter border-security measures. More recently, Puzder has been a vocal proponent of reviving some sort of comprehensive immigration reform. In 2015, he joined several other prominent Republican donors in encouraging the emerging Republican presidential field to emulate Jeb Bush’s approach to immigration.
The events of the last year are an unmistakably clear signal that Republican voters have different priorities. Republicans in the Senate should use Puzder’s confirmation process to secure from him a commitment to immigration-related labor policies that put the American worker first: national implementation of E-Verify for all new hires, for example (an idea to which Puzder is friendly), more-rigorous certification of guest workers, and aggressive action against companies that abuse labor laws to undermine American workers. Republicans need to know that the Republican labor secretary will work with them, not against them, on these issues.
Of course, the secretary of labor has a great many concerns not related to immigration, and on these Puzder is a far more reliable choice. He is an executive who knows how jobs are created, and toward that end, he has been an outspoken opponent of increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, cognizant of the basic economic reality that as the price of something increases, people tend to buy less of it. He’s not afraid to point out that activists lobbying for a sharp jump in the minimum wage are, in reality, lobbying for a whole lot more self-checkout stations.
With the exception of one or two questionable choices (and the process is ongoing), Trump has managed to assemble a strong cabinet that balances various competing interests on the right. Andy Puzder could be a valuable part of that team. But Republicans should demand that Puzder follow Donald Trump’s lead when it comes to immigration.