A Patron of Democracy at Work asks: "What do you think about the left's view of immigration and why do you think that seems to be the consensus view? Why are most on the left so in support of immigration when it’s clear the working class seem to be rejecting it?"
This is Professor Richard Wolff's video response.
Transcript has been edited for clarity
This is Richard Wolff from Democracy at Work responding to another Ask Prof Wolff question from our Patreon community. This one comes from Theo. And Theo asks about immigration and about a frequently encountered opposition of working-class people to immigration as a threat to their incomes, their jobs, and so on. And he wants to know how to think about this without dismissing this concern and yet without dismissing a concern for immigrants as well. They are, after all, both parts of the working class: the domestic part and the overseas part. And I'm going to try to do exactly that.
Let me begin by making clear to everyone that, economically speaking, immigrants bring both problems and solutions to problems and a good mixture of both of them. Yes, there is definitely a tendency for immigration to involve people who come from desperate areas (desperate politically, desperate war conditions, desperate poverty). That's always been true. There is a sympathy we all have for immigrants, which is something we should be proud of. Immigrants are trying to leave bitter, dangerous places and come to a better life. And they see that, in this case, in the United States. And they hope for it. But mostly the people who come are young men and women, sometimes with children. The costs of their childhood, which would have been costs in the United States if they were here, had been borne by the country they had left. They are coming here mostly as younger people to work. And they're going to work. And when they work, they add to the wealth produced in this country. They also contribute, for example, to Social Security, even though they leave behind, in most cases, the sick, the ill, and the aged who might have been a burden on Social Security. They make all kinds of purchases that keep our economy going. I'm stressing their positives because you mostly hear about the negatives, which is an unfair and inaccurate way of understanding they're mixed.
Well, then, what is the story of the immigrants if their impacts are economically mixed? They cost us some, they help us some, which, by the way, is true for most workers, foreign or domestic. But immigration is mostly controlled by capitalism, and this is something people need to understand. Capitalists are forever maximizing profit. They tell us that, and everything shows that they're telling the truth. Profit is the bottom line. Profit is the goal.
And one of the ways you get profit is (to quote them again) economizing on labor costs. Okay, here's what that means in simple English. Number one: replacing worker with a machine (a robot, artificial intelligence, a computer, whatever). The second way is to move jobs from the United States, where wages are relatively high, to other parts of the world, where they are low. And the third is to bring low-wage workers from other countries into the United States. When we have immigration, it's always because employers see in those immigrants cheapening labor opportunities.
But of course, if that's the point, then workers in the United States seeing jobs filled by immigrants who are paid less can become upset (rightly so) and bitter (rightly so). They have a choice: to blame the employer (who's the force behind it) or to blame the poor immigrant (who's trying to best improve life for their families). Unfortunately, many workers choose the easier path. But they're being fooled because even if they're successful (as we have been in the United States over recent years under Obama, Trump, and Biden) in stopping immigration or reversing immigration, even then, all you're doing is changing the focus of corporations. Instead of cheapening labor by immigration, because that's causing too much of a backlash among American workers and the politicians whose demagoguery builds on that, all that the corporations are then going to do are going to say, "Okay, we can't cheapen labor by bringing in low-wage immigrants; we'll leave. We'll go to China. We'll go to Brazil. We'll go to India. And we'll get the cheap workers there." Or, and or, "We'll replace them with machines." And then the cry will go up, "They're replacing us with machines!" Or, "They are exporting our jobs!" And if the backlash develops to that, they say, "Okay, we'll stop exporting jobs, and we'll bring in immigrants." And if that's blocked, then they'll focus on automation.
The problem of immigration turns out to have behind it the real problem: capitalists make money. What the social consequences are (more immigration, less immigration, more job exports, less job exports, more automation), all of that's decided as a strategic decision aimed at profit maximization. Profit goes to relatively few of us. Wages is what most of us depend on (wages and salaries). An economy serving the majority would not make profit its deciding issue. That's a capitalist commitment. And that's why the system called capitalism ought to be what you're concerned about when you consider the problem of immigration. A rational system would figure out where it can use and benefit from immigrants and bring them in where and when that's possible. And be careful that you don't do that at the expense of the workers that are already here, even if that means helping other parts of the world keep people from immigrating by providing them with a safe, decent livelihood. We could be doing that, and we could be doing that with an eye on immigration.
Remember this as a final thought: Immigrants are people torn out of their homes, the places where they were born, the languages they speak, the communities they're part of, the churches, the schools they are invested in. It's a terrible disruption to be forced to leave all of that, take a dangerous trip into an unknown other place where you'll have to start from scratch and find your way. No one does that under anything other than heavy, scary pressure. We don't need to respond to that by being an added burden. Our religions argue against it; so does our better nature. Capitalism could care less, and that's the problem.
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Transcript by BZ
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