Post a Comment
Original Content at
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Associate Member, or higher).

January 25, 2011

Immigration Policy: the Liberal/Progressive Dichotomy

By Jim Arnold

Differences of opinion about how best to deal with unauthorized immigration serve to profile subtle differences between liberalism and progressivism that are well worth exploring.


Differences of opinion about how best to deal with unauthorized immigration serve to profile subtle differences between liberalism and progressivism that are well worth exploring.

The labels liberal and progressive are often treated synonymously, but they are political philosophies with different origins and some differences in outlook that we might only recognize implicitly, if at all. Liberals and progressives are usually natural allies, and my intent here isn't to be divisive. But political differences can be clarified and even resolved if the underlying perspectives are made explicit and evaluated afresh in terms of specific issues, like immigration.

Labels are generalizations, of course. But they are indispensable for everyday life as well as forming abstract opinions. Individuals may elude precise classification, they may hold inconsistent opinions, some of which might qualify as "liberal" and some as "progressive." And it's true that by identifying with a political label people can become rigid and partisan in their thinking. But it's also true that taking unconsidered positions without referencing the political philosophies they express can result in contradictory and superficial judgments, and can be held no less stubbornly just because of personal attachment.

Historically, liberalism has been a political philosophy of the more humane members of the privileged and educated class, while progressivism has often been a product of life experience among working people and ethnic outcasts. With the democratization of education and blending of communities the distinction has softened, but the relative perspectives of what can be expressed in simple terms of (liberal) altruism and (progressive) pugnacity remain a real contrast with real influences.

Liberals tend to focus on altruistic political rights, whereas progressives tend to be more pugnaciously concerned with issues pertaining to living conditions - especially in the neighborhood and workplace. The question of illegal or unauthorized immigration is problematic for the usual sense of common cause between liberals and progressives mainly because it involves a conflict between a focus on rights for immigrants and the effects of immigration on citizens.

[Note: Illegal immigrant is an emotional label, charged with political implications, and often used as a pejorative by conservatives. Although it specifically and accurately applies to those who haven't entered the country legally, with a more sympathetic label, undocumented immigrant , the same people can be portrayed as those who are simply without ( legal ) documentation. Political affiliations and biases aside, the description undocumented obscures the reason people don't have documentation: they have crossed a national border without legal authorization. I prefer to use unauthorized as the more meaningful label, without prejudice or pejorative.]

The immigration problem in the U.S. is complex and difficult for the Left to unite around, but it's even more divisive and emotional for the Latino/Hispanic community. Those who identify primarily as American citizens and those seeking citizenship through legal means tend to have a more ambivalent regard for unauthorized immigration than those who identify as Latinos and focus on the discrimination and abuse of la rasa . For the latter, immigration is seen primarily as a family and community issue of victimization, apart from national policy and political philosophy. My concern here is with national policy.

Some positions on immigration as national policy are more strategic than philosophical. Leading Republicans use it as a wedge issue, a means of collecting support by inciting racism and fear. Some leading Democrats see the Latino/Hispanic vote as an electoral advantage to be gained by demonstrating compassion and support. Some union leaders seem to see the unauthorized as a pool of potential members and dues-payers to be organized. But my primary concern here is with principles of national policy, apart from consequent political and financial advantages or disadvantages.

There are some issues of national policy where I believe liberalism is better suited than progressivism to advance important principles. On freedom of speech, for example, the liberal principle of defending a nazi's or klansman's right to speak comes from what is arguably a clearer grasp on what is ultimately at stake in protecting everyone's rights. On unauthorized immigration though, I believe the progressive view is the better guide for promoting our national interest.

[Note: A concern for national policy and interests needn't be nationalistic . In a world of vast economic disparities between nations, uncontrolled immigration and trade serve to level differences by lowering working people's incomes to the "common denominator" rather than raising and protecting them. Unlike the conservatives, progressives and (in many ways) liberals favor national policies that foster improvements in conditions both here and in other nations, not increased advantages over others or decreased advantages for American workers.]

The liberal view on unauthorized immigration in its most abstract form is an expression of support for human rights, and compassion, and generosity toward the most abused and disadvantaged people in our society. Less clearly, less consciously perhaps, many appreciate the benefits of relations between the better-off and those who perform menial services. Progressives tend to have a more immediate involvement and experience with the effects of immigration policy. Their jobs may be at risk or may have already been lost by competition with immigrants, or their wages and working conditions and access to public services may be compromised. I believe it can be shown that many specific biases and opinions about unauthorized immigration flow from the differences in these general perspectives.

Perhaps because of an unfamiliarity with physical labor, many liberals tend to believe that immigrants are the only people who would be willing to perform the typical sorts of work they are doing. Progressives are more likely to recognize that the problem with difficult or unpleasant labor is the inadequacy of the wages unauthorized immigrants are compelled to accept, that citizens would consequently have to share.

I don't believe it can be stated too emphatically: Americans - brown black and white - are no less willing than immigrants to do hard work, if paid a living wage. It's also important to recognize that while unauthorized immigrants do many of the least favored jobs in our economy, they have been expanding into formerly unionized professions like skilled carpentry. It's not just about stooping and picking anymore, not even mostly.

Business-friendly economists, both liberal and conservative, argue that if difficult and unpleasant forms of labor were paid a living wage the cost of goods and services involved would soar beyond most people's reach. Those who are inclined to listen to such economists often quote astronomical predictions of the prices of tomatoes and lettuce if agricultural workers were to be paid more than subsistence wages. This is an expression of the common self-serving business dogma which claims that if costs of business go up, prices have to go up accordingly. Progressive economists will point out that the cost of agricultural labor is a small percentage of the prices of agricultural products and that profits fluctuate much more than prices - so when costs of production go up, profits go down far more than prices up. The real direct relationship is when the lowest levels of wages go up, others' wages must rise correspondingly.

The easy acceptance of false dogmas like those regarding the economics of immigrant labor is often an indication of disinterest, if not self-interest, in the difference between story and reality. With unauthorized immigration, when the concern for the rights of some is more interesting than a concern for the conditions of others, or when the enjoyment of a situation is more immediate and appealing than its confrontation, various supportive beliefs follow with partiality:

It's true, as it's widely believed, that immigrant labor has become indispensable to our economy. But in a larger, more comprehensive perspective, the displacement of national workers and collapse of wages is the reason immigrants have become indispensable. It's a national problem, a core problem, and a reversal of the trend, not its acceptance, is the better national solution.

It's true that except for Native Americans and slaves, we're a nation of immigrants, and the original European settlers were unauthorized and illegal by current standards of right. But from a more comprehensive perspective, that truth doesn't succeed in making present-day unauthorized immigration acceptable or incontestable; citizens living here and now deserve the ability to control the borders whatever their ancestors' origins.

It's true that because children born to unauthorized immigrants are granted citizenship, if parents were compelled to leave the country without them, the breakup of families would be a tragedy. But seen in a more comprehensive perspective, parents who have to, or choose to leave the country have no need to abandon their children, they would be wrong do so, and the children will one day have the privilege of returning, as adults, if they choose.

It's true that the outsourcing of American jobs due to the corruption of government policies by transnational corporations is an even bigger problem than unauthorized immigration. But any implication that one problem should be ignored while another is addressed or complained about is unconsidered if not disingenuous.

Any number of partial truths can be embraced in support of the opinion that unauthorized immigration is an intractable problem, that the only solution is some form of accommodation. There has always been a faction of liberalism that involves a measure of guilt, and understandably, there is guilt involved for some liberals (many liberals being those few among the relatively privileged who are amenable to feeling guilt) who benefit in some way from the cheap, hard work of unauthorized labor. Rejecting conservative solutions like deportation and fence-building, maybe embracing the idea that the hard work and industrious ethic of the immigrants deserves reward, implies - especially for those thinking from guilt - the idea that the solution is some form of amnesty or "path to citizenship" that allows the unauthorized to "come out of the shadows." Returning to the theme of this paper, it should be fairly easy to see the bias for accommodation as a representative expression of the liberal world-view, guilt-driven or not: It's humane, it's idealistic, it's focused on the rights of the downtrodden. And as a characteristic, it's admirable. But as is more apparent in the progressive world-view, rights can sometimes compete and conflict, and accommodation for some can be oppression for others.

The liberal solution to unauthorized immigration doesn't work as a national policy, and it's not the only alternative to the conservative solutions. The fundamental, practical, and actually glaring problem with the liberal approach is this: Give unauthorized immigrants a path to citizenship, or a conditional authorization, and their ability to command higher wages and better conditions will be immediately enhanced; their desirability as employees will be immediately and correspondingly reduced; and there will be a flood of new unauthorized immigrants to take their places at the lowest available economic rung .

The best long-term solution for Americans and the unauthorized is a vigorous enforcement of existing laws against the employment of illegal aliens - against the American employers . When there is no work, practically all of the unauthorized will go home. They aren't here for our "freedom," they aren't here for our culture, and they certainly aren't here for our friendliness and magnanimity. If there is no work, for most of them, there is no reason to stay.

Why is this the best solution even for the unauthorized? Because in every country that is supplying emigrants as a relief-valve for the intolerable depredations of a ruling elite there are far more people who haven't left, who won't leave, and who will continue to suffer until the pressure for a radical transformation of their society builds to a flash-point. For transformation or revolution to succeed, those who are left behind need their itinerant compatriotas to come back home.

Granted, it may be true that even if immigration is under control, seasonal agricultural labor will need to be supplemented by immigrants, even if many Americans have been enticed into the life by a living wage. It's possible. It's a practical and hypothetical question that can only be answered when growers are forced to choose between 1) being prosecuted and 2) providing a living wage and decent workplace. I believe many Americans would, at least for some time in their lives, choose to become adequately-paid members of a community of seasonal migrant workers if the opportunity existed, maybe enjoying a virtual traveling circus of experiences. Imagine yourself - if you're young enough or have memory enough - spending a year in the fields as part of a sub-culture of free-ranging kibbutzers , maybe saving money for college. It would be more appealing than Marine Corps bootcamp and several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, would it not? The Marines aren't having much trouble recruiting people to risk their lives, sleep in holes, and endure severe discipline for long hours and low pay. When growers are compelled to obey immigration laws, and consequently, to pay a living wage, when citizens are drawn to the opportunity, the question of whether and how much supplemental immigrant labor is required will be answered at the time and on the ground.

As with any social-political issue, beneath questions of principle there are political and economic interests and psychological biases dividing the parties on unauthorized immigration. Many conservative leaders and pundits will serve corporate interests and pander to the racist vote; some liberals will serve corporate interests and pander to the Latino/Hispanic vote. But when conservatives can only offer a symbolic wall and the persecution of immigrants, liberals and progressives can unite with Latinos and Hispanics against racism and hypocrisy, for the humane treatment of the unauthorized, and for the just dispensation of illegal employers. It's encouraging when the principled thing is recognized as also being the politically advantageous thing.

To reduce a political perspective to a person's psychology is generally a cheap rhetorical manipulation. But there is a genuine psychological component to many people's feelings about the immigration issue, which unlike the passivity of guilt, may unduly contribute to the passion of a political perspective unless it's confronted and resolved. Emotional attachment can influence both Left and Right when a profound sympathy develops for those who are viewed as victims of one's opponents or enemies. It implicates a strange, ironic parallel between anti-abortionists and some pro-immigrationists . Those who would ban abortion, driven by emotion, by a fear and hatred of independent women and the "liberal" men who support them, are similar in a way to liberals who support unauthorized immigrants against abuse: The anti-choice legions love the zygotes as victims of liberalism, but have no comparable feeling for the plight of unwanted children or un-wanting mothers.  Among liberals, stirred by contempt for racism and oppression, with a genuine sympathy for immigrants, there is often-times not a sufficiently balanced concern for the effects of unauthorized immigration on citizens. Psychology isn't the root of these perspectives, but it contributes to their political intensity. And the similarity in psychological influence ends where liberals can come to see a broader issue of rights, but where conservatives are determined to conserve their fixation on those they perceive as enemies.

Liberals and progressives share an interest in our Constitution's mandate to promote the general welfare, and in many other aspects of our national heritage. American workers - brown, black and white - have fought and died for the rights and benefits we have enjoyed. They didn't do it just for themselves, they did it so that we, their descendants, could have a better life. We should preserve the heritage they've given us against the effort among corporate interests to undercut what's been achieved. So for the common good, let's advocate for the prosecution of illegal employers; let's give the unauthorized an incentive to go home and help transform their nations, to live there as free men and women as most would prefer; let's control the borders, both from unauthorized immigration and from the emigration of jobs through outsourcing; let's give American workers the right to work at a living wage in factories and fields; let's unite with American Latinos and Hispanics in common cause against racism, discrimination, and unfair competition with the unauthorized. It's the righteous and humane thing to do. It's both a liberal and a progressive thing to do.

Submitters Bio:

A former visitant of UC Santa Cruz, former union boilermaker, ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, anti-war activist, dilettante in science with an earth-shaking theory on the nature of light (which no one will consider), philosopher in the tradition of Schelling, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, Marx, and Fromm (sigh, no one listens to me on that either), author of a book on wine clubs (ahem), and cast-off programmer of ancient computer languages. I've recently had two physics articles published in an obscure but earnest Central European journal (European Scientific Journal http://www.eujournal.org/index.php/esj) but my main interests remain politics and philosophy.