Is immigration the problem?

Roy Beck, head of the anti-immigration group Numbers USA, has been circulating a slick video. Over 1.8 million viewers have seen its frightening picture of the U.S. overwhelmed by immigrants. But beneath the surface is a mix of inaccuracies and misdirection.

Beck starts with this thesis: 1926-1965 was a golden era in America, when immigration was limited to an average of 178,000 per year. As a result, the labor market was tight, and workers enjoyed high wages and prosperity. Since 1965, immigration has increased, now reaching over 1 million per year. The result: surplus labor which has lowered wages and living standards for American workers.

In short, Beck says (low immigration) = (tight labor market) = (high wages).

The facts don’t support Beck. In the 1920s, immigration was almost entirely choked off, and the 1930s had the lowest immigration in the last 100 years. So there should have been low unemployment and high wages, right? Wrong! We had the Great Depression, with 25 percent unemployment, and miserable wages for those who could find jobs. Then, as now, some people blamed immigrants, as well as Blacks, Jews and probably sunspots, for the disaster.

Beck’s next point: Without any net immigration, the U.S. population will continue to grow until about 2030, when it will level off. But if we continue with the present net immigration of 1 million per year, population will grow indefinitely. Immigrants are severely straining our resources — in California alone, a new school is being built every day. This is a burden on hard-working American taxpayers.

In fact, in the late 1950s and 1960s, a rapidly growing population, fueled by the baby boom, put strains on schools across the country. But a growing U.S. economy was able to pay for more schools and teachers, as well as greatly expanded access to higher education. Real wages were increasing, there was a significant reduction in poverty, and major social programs (like Medicare and Medicaid) were implemented.

The high local taxes paid by working families are caused, first of all, by a regressive financing system that puts most of the cost of education and other services on local communities. In other developed countries, these costs are borne by the national government, providing more equality in these services.

Beck talks about other real problems, including economic insecurity, urban sprawl and barriers to economic progress by African Americans. These problems have increased in the last 30 years. So has immigration. Does that mean, as Beck claims, that immigration is the cause?

This seems plausible only because there is a common cause: the capitalist system driven by private corporate profits. Neoliberal policies that have removed all controls from multinational corporate activity are responsible for increased immigration, as well as U.S. workers’ economic insecurity. A global conglomerate drives Mexican peasants off their land, forcing them to risk death to look for work here. The same conglomerate closes urban factories in the U.S., moving production abroad and setting up distribution warehouses in suburban and rural areas in the U.S. where property taxes are low. The impact has been aggravated by the Bush administration’s priorities which increase the burden on working families and their communities while cutting taxes for the wealthy, waging an unnecessary, expensive and destructive war, and placing corporate profits ahead of the public good.

People are looking for a way out. Blaming immigration is not it.

In the Depression, some used racism, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment to advocate a fascist solution. But the victims of the economic crisis organized with the slogan, “Black and white, unite and fight,” and won unemployment insurance and Social Security. They marched and voted to win the New Deal, which put millions to work constructing schools, bridges and highways. As a result of unionization of major industries, wages and working conditions improved despite high unemployment.

Today, immigrants and U.S.-born workers — Black, white and Latino — are joining together in a host of struggles. If we reject anti-immigration diversions, we can take a lesson from the 1930s, and “unite and fight” for the people’s needs.

Economics @ cpusa.org