The Washington Post has a recording of acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney addressing a private gathering in England this week on a variety of issues. The bit on immigration:
“We are desperate — desperate — for more people,” Mulvaney said. “We are running out of people to fuel the economic growth that we’ve had in our nation over the last four years. We need more immigrants.”
Many readers, and even the WaPo reporter I spoke with, were surprised by this, but they shouldn’t have been; Trump himself has been calling for increased immigration for over a year now. He started his immigration-expansion tour at the 2019 State of the Union, saying “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” (Emphasis added.) The following day he doubled down, saying “I need people coming in because we need people to run the factories and plants and companies that are moving back in. We need people.” He’s brought it up a number of times since.
Mulvaney was simply repeating what his boss had been saying for some time.
I thought maybe the White House had backed away from this when the president made only the most cursory mention of immigration in this year’s SOTU address, without any mention of “the largest numbers ever.” But that does not seem to be the case.
The administration’s long-awaited immigration plan, whose release seems forever to be just weeks away, is seen inside the White House as a compromise precisely because it doesn’t increase legal immigration levels. From what we’ve heard about it, the effect would, in fact, be higher admissions, but the ostensibly numbers-neutral nature of the bill is presented as a sop to troglodytic restrictionists. An administration official told me point-blank last year that immigration levels really needed to be increased, but they were throwing the deplorables (my word) a bone by refraining from doing so.
But maybe Mulvaney and the rest of the immigration expansionists in the White House are right, maybe we are “running out of people”. Are we?
The latest Labor Department data shows nearly 49 million working-age, non-disabled people who are not working. Labor force participation is just starting to climb, with last month’s rate four-tenths of a point higher than January 2019 – but this is still way below the pre-recession level of 2007, which was itself lower than the level in 2000 at the peak of that expansion.
Also, as an administration fact sheet pointed out just this week, wage growth has been greater for workers than for managers, greater for non-college than college, greater for the bottom 10 percent of earners than the top 10 percent, greater for blacks than for whites. But this has just started to turn around after decades of stagnation.
Why douse these first glowing embers of progress by pouring a bucket of increased immigration on them?
The genuine difficulties some employers are having in finding staff have to be weighed against the beneficial social consequences of a tight labor market. Everyone agrees that stagnant wages for blue-collar workers and low labor-force participation are problems. Nick Eberstadt’s piece in the current issue of National Affairs on “the collapse of work for adult men” shines light on this social crisis in a way that renders laughable complaints about restaurants having to raise the hourly rate for dishwashers.
Decisions made about the federal immigration program will always have one of two effects: either they will make it easier for employers to find workers, or easier for workers to find employment. What we’re seeing now is employers having to hustle to recruit and retain workers, whether by increasing wages and benefits or hiring people they would otherwise have overlooked – ex-cons, recovering addicts, the disabled, etc. A tight labor market is the best social policy, and loosening it through increased immigration is bad policy.
It’s also bad politics. A broad political realignment is underway, with the GOP making a play to become the party of ordinary working people. But highlighting the social deviancy and anti-Americanism of the Democrats can only go so far in effecting this realignment; Republicans also need to free themselves from the corporate servitude of earlier years. By pushing increased immigration, the administration runs the risk of blowing this once-in-a-generation chance at realignment.
And even in the short term, Trump risks blowing it. Unless he starts talking about more than just border control, and emphasizes pro-worker immigration policies, the president creates a situation where the Democratic nominee can get to his right on immigration. This is not as implausible as it sounds. While the last pro-borders left-winger in national politics, Bernie Sanders, has surrendered to the anti-borders dogma of the Squad (reversing his previous concern for national sovereignty), leftists retain one way of (disingenuously) claiming to be pro-worker on immigration: slamming guestworker programs, which are always exploitative and always lead to illegal settlement. And, as if on cue, Politico reported this week that “the administration has been in talks with senators about legislation that would create new categories of temporary worker visas.”
Most people have already made up their minds about Trump. But a pro-worker message on immigration can prove decisive among the share that remains. That includes not only white working-class voters in the Midwest, but also blue-collar black and Hispanic voters who truly are doing better under Trump – but who would be the first to suffer from Mick Mulvaney’s preferred immigration policies.
Trump can either be the pro-worker president, or he can cater to the lobbyists pushing for increased immigration. He can’t be both.