I often find myself bewildered when I encounter people who claim to be libertarians or conservatives who have taken a nativist stand on immigration. Typically I encounter this in people from the far right of the Republican Party or from supporters of Ron Paul and in the context of the presidential candidacy of John McCain. They usually come up with a statement which starts “I could vote for McCain, but…” and follow with the unforgivable crime which McCain has committed. Over half the time that crime is his endorsement of ‘amnesty’ for illegal aliens in the failed 2007 immigration reform bill. That’s when I start scratching my head and wondering what kind of brainworms these self-proclaimed conservatives and libertarians are infested with. Putting aside the fact that the immigration bill contained no measures which more than vaguely resembled amnesty, what mystifies me is how they can call themselves conservatives or libertarians and still hold a nativist position on immigration.
For a start, the nativist anti-immigration position has always been a policy of the political left, from northeastern Democrats with a racist fear of ‘foreign wretches’ to pro-labor socialists who see immigration as a threat to the welfare of American workers. Nativism makes some sense for the political left. It goes hand in hand with their protectionist stand on labor and industry. It makes no sense at all for a right wing which is supposed to be capitalist and pro-business, in favor of free trade, free labor and keeping wages and inflation low.
Republican Immigration Policy
From its very start the Republican Party has been pro-immigration and the fact that some Republican politicians like Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter are now building their careers on an exclusionary policy on immigration is a sign of how far the party has strayed from its roots. One of the cornerstones of the party when it was founded was the idea of ‘free labor’, applying both to slaves and immigrants. The party platform of 1860 said that the party “is opposed to any change in our Naturalization Laws or any State legislation by which the rights of our citizenship hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands shall be abridged or impaired; and in favor of giving a full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens, whether native or naturalized, both at home and abroad.” That’s an extremely liberal position on immigration, suggesting that the rights of citizenship in the United States are inherent to anyone in the world.
Admittedly, the GOP has become more conservative since the time of Lincoln, but along with that it has also become even more the party of business and industry, and from that perspective a relatively open and liberal immigration policy also makes a lot of sense. Businesses need workers and they always want to cut their overhead. Letting in low-wage workers from overseas or south of the border benefits business, keeps wages down and keeps prices reasonable and US products more competitive in an international market where wages are generally much lower than they are in the US. It’s the more desirable flip-side of outsourcing. Bringing the cheap labor here instead of sending our industries overseas seems like a pretty good idea if we want to compete internationally. That’s a priority of business and it has always been a priority for the Republican Party.
Conservative Immigration Policy
The one thing which the current generation of conservative leaders can always seem to agree on is that Ronald Reagan was a great president and the father of the modern conservative movement. Yet in the next breath they’re likely to condemn liberal immigration policies and damn John McCain for his supposed amnesty bill. What they seem to have conveniently forgotten is that Reagan was as big on open immigration as any other pro-business traditional Republican and supported and signed off on the one true immigration amnesty bill of the modern era.
In 1986 Reagan gave unconditional amnesty to over 3 million illegals living in the United States, no questions asked. They just had to sign up and they could become citizens. Reagan’s was a real amnesty bill, nothing like the very moderate immigration reform which was considered last year and included serious penalties for illegals wishing to attain a legal status. Reagan’s bill was supported by most Republicans in Congress and passed easily, yet despite this he remains a figure of legendary status among conservatives.
In that era being a bit soft on illegal immigration was seen as a positive because it was perceived as a good thing for the economy, keeping wages and inflation down, helping out businesses and even adding willing workers to the workforce. Back then the GOP remembered that it was a party based at least in part on supporting business and positive economic policies. The focus was on the economic benefits of immigration and socially conservative fear of foreign infiltration was laughed at by anyone sensible.
Reagan’s reasonable view of immigration seems to have been forgotten and this new nativist trend is a divergence from the long-term stance of the party and it’s not a change for the better. It’s not the way the party would have acted even a few years ago and it really doesn’t make any sense today either.
What troubles me about this is that 10 years ago no conservative politician would have seriously tried to build a campaign or a career on a nativist stance on immigration the way that people like Tancredo have done, and there certainly wouldn’t have been a widespread movement to close the borders and someone like McCain wouldn’t be reviled by any significant number of Republicans for taking a moderate stance on immigration.
Libertarian Immigration Policy
Even weirder is the recent trend among libertarians, both in the Libertarian Party and among the libertarian element of the GOP, to take a nativist stance against immigration. This viewpoint seems to be spearheaded by Ron Paul and his followers who have borrowed a lot of the plays in their book from the John Birch Society.
Historically the libertarian position on immigration has been to favor absolutely open borders. That’s not just liberal immigration policy, that’s letting people stroll over and live here without even asking them any questions or keeping any track of them. Libertarians believe in freedom and that freedom is universal. Everyone has a right to be free, not just those lucky enough to live in the United States. Freedom includes freedom of movement and the right to choose where you live. The logical conclusion of that for most Libertarians has been to have wide open borders, at least until recently.
In fact, for 30 years, every Libertarian Party platform included in its section on immigration this unequivocal concluding phrase or something very much like it:
“We therefore call for the elimination of all restrictions on immigration, the abolition of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol, and a declaration of full amnesty for all people who have entered the country illegally.”
While this changed gradually to a much more conservative stand on immigration starting in 2002, it’s quite clear what the beliefs of the party were for most of its history, beliefs which were shared by founders like Murray Rothbard. Even when I talked to current Libertarian Presidential candidate Bob Barr last week, he took a relatively moderate stand on immigration, acknowledging the need for foreign workers and a dynamic labor force, but stressing that open borders were no longer party policy.
As a party the Libertarians still have the most open position on immigration, yet these days you’ll be hard pressed to find a libertarian in the Ron Paul faction or a libertarian Republican who will openly acknowledge that the nation’s prosperity is built on the basis of cheap immigrant labor and that we need that labor for that prosperity to continue.
The Folly of Nativism
Today the resurgent nativist movement is being driven by demagogues like Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan, Jerome Corsi and Alex Jones and groups like the Minute Men and the John Birch Society. It is a movement of the radical fringe which has come to infect the mainstream political agenda of the Republican Party, despite the fact that it is against the traditions of the party and the best interests of their constituency.
Republicans usually decry the high cost of doing business and revile the segment of the population which would rather take welfare than work. Immigrants are willing to work at lower wages and do the jobs which so many native born workers aren’t interested in. They are the answer to every capitalists dream, bringing down wages, prices and business overhead, and increasing productivity. And the truth is that they really aren’t competing for jobs with most of the native population. Whenever there’s a regional crackdown on illegals you see certain sectors of the economy grind to a halt because of the shortage of labor.
If you are a Republican of the Conservative or Libertarian variety like so many in the more activist wing of the party, supporting harsh immigration restrictions just makes no sense. It doesn’t fit with the rest of your ideology or the history and traditions of the party and the people promoting it most ardently like Lou Dobbs and Pat Buchanan come from a populist or even socialist tradition which would be more compatible with the modern Democratic Party than with any reasonable position on the right where capitalism and prosperity are valued. Immigrant labor is a key element of a strong economy. If you oppose immigration you might want to think about where the labor needed to drive economic growth is going to come from instead.