Forget about Joe Kennedy III’s Chap Stick. You know what kills me about the Democrats?
Time after time after time, they fight the battles Republicans pick, on terms that Republicans dictate.
This is a different problem than the problem, apart from the weird lip-shine, that critics professed to have with Kennedy’s State of the Union rebuttal. Detractors carped that this was the trotting-out of the same old liberal talking points, voiced by the same old monied Massachusetts K-words, lacking a positive, integrated economic vision for the future. But the wrong-battlefield problem is closely related.
Immigration is a perfect example. By fighting on Republican terms, Democrats have not only allowed the GOP to define the issue, but to cut it out of the broader economic narrative into which it must be tightly sewn if Democrats are to win, on this or anything else.
For years now, Democrats had been walking straight onto an immigration debate stage set by the nativist wing of the GOP, which has also written a now-familiar script:
Republicans: We’ve got to get these illegals out of here and keep any more from coming in!
Democrats: They’re not ‘illegal’, they’re ‘undocumented’, and this country was built on immigrants!
Republicans: Not on illegal immigrants it wasn’t.
Democrats: But they’re here already! They’re working, studying, contributing to their communities…
Republicans: Damn straight! They’re taking our jobs, siphoning off our social services, and killing and raping and…"
Democrats: You’re racists!
Republicans: We’re not racists, we’re realists. This is America. We have to put our own people first.
Democrats: These immigrants are our people.
Republicans (salivating; scenting victory ) Exactly. Africans, Haitians and Hispanics with no respect for the law are your people. Americans who play by the rules are our people.
Given the many sharp, moving parts of this issue and the unexpected ways in which those parts can jut out and whack politicians of both parties, it’s anything but clear that Republican hardliners will win by keeping this dialogue going. But they come much closer than their opponents ought to let them. After all, the above debate leaves an awful lot of room for nice, average people to scratch their heads and go, “Sure, I feel sorry for people coming here, but I’m here already, struggling for the basics, and no one is doing a thing for me.” Or, given some of the recent left-wing effusions about welcoming everyone: “hang on a second, shouldn’t there be a difference between the way the government treats a legal immigrant versus an illegal one? Or a citizen versus a non-citizen?” Best of all for the GOP, it also gives those asking such questions occasion to resent being considered racist for doing so.
All the while, the Republicans are getting away with policy murder. For years now, they have been allowed to roll merrily along, convincing millions of people that whether one regrets or revels in the harsh stance they take on immigration, that stance is going to lead to an America whose abundance will grow, then flow, above all, to Americans. This is total hogwash. The glaring fact of the matter is this: If the Republicans really wanted to make good on what they present as the promise of their vision for immigration, they would have to jettison their vision of everything else.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s forget about the racial, humanitarian, logistical, short-term economic and long-term actuarial implications, and adopt the hard-line GOP immigration ideal as our own. (And I use the term “hard-line” advisedly; obviously, some Republicans have far more nuanced views, but they are not the ones driving the bus.)
So our goal is: the US will have zero illegal immigrants, and only the most strictly limited, stupendously beneficial trickle of legal ones. Nobody succeeds in sneaking across the border. Nobody overstays a visa. No crimes are committed, jobs taken, families formed or benefits claimed by anyone who hasn’t been born here or practically begged to come by dint of their uniquely fabulous skills. It’s all native-born Americans, plus a few independently wealthy foreign geniuses, nobody else, from sea to shining sea.
Anyway, if that’s the dream, then yes: it makes sense to super-secure the borders, put the pedal to the metal on “extreme vetting,” and brace for mass deportation. Lord knows, the GOP has thought of all that. But there are other requirements too, and they’re ignoring -- if not actively thwarting -- those.
Let’s start with the magic four-letter word: jobs.
Logically, if the goal is for the best jobs in America to go to Americans and only Americans, a two-pronged strategy should be in full force.
One: In the immediate term, make sure that the most educated, brilliant, employment-generating Americans can really strut their stuff here.
Two: Produce massive numbers of Americans capable of doing the best jobs likely to be generated in the future. Needless to say, if this ultra-Americanization of work in America were to take root within decades as opposed to centuries, this mass production of massively productive citizens would not be a small matter -- a little high-school STEM funding here, some computer-based “transition” courses for displaced factory workers there.
Remember, the current H1-B visa controversy exists solely because there are more jobs being generated in burgeoning sectors, such as tech, than there are Americans fit to fill them. There is dispute over how big that gap really is, and whether some skilled Americans are being bypassed in favor of foreigners willing to take lower salaries. But no one seriously disputes that the skilled-Americans/available-jobs gap exists, and that it’s set to get larger. Even to approach closing it would require a domestic Marshall Plan for education, particularly the education of engineers. If this plan were to have both a hope of elevating working-class folks, white and otherwise, and also a hope of keeping America at the forefront of the world economy, its tentacles would have to reach from (obviously universal) pre-kindergarten through grad school.
On part one, the Republicans seem to understand the concept of value retention when it comes to money. They’ll never tire of celebrating the repatriation of corporate billions wrought by their recent tax bill, and that’s fine. It’s great, actually! But the concept seems to elude them entirely when it comes to minds. The extreme GOP respect for capital-capital is weirdly coupled these days with outright contempt for intellectual capital. To see this, just contemplate how much economically-salient intellectual capital currently resides in the field of science -- a field with which the Republican party has seen fit to wage all-out war. The political reasons for this may be obvious, but if Democrats played their cards better, the economic ramifications would be too. If the goal is to leverage the best of the best brains in America for the sake of tapping one of our time’s richest veins of employment, defunding and denigrating scientific research while staking the future on fossil fuels is a very odd way to go about it.
As for part two, the Democrats leave plenty to be desired in the education-for-innovation department. But they’re not the ones who are pretending that the economic salvation of the average Joe hinges on getting rid of immigrants. And at least Democrats seem appropriately chagrined by the irony that has stymied and embittered a generation: the more necessary a college education is to succeed in America, the more difficult it is for ordinary Americans to afford one.
And speaking of ironies, how about this one: Anti-immigration types want to crack down on student-visa holders who wish to remain in the U.S. beyond their courses of study, on the grounds that they then displace American workers. Pro-immigration types counter that that merely deports the benefits of a first-class American education. What often gets lost is one reason that foreign students have come to figure so prominently in U.S. higher education: there aren’t enough Americans who can both do the work and pay the full freight.
The reasons for this are myriad and complex, but for an “America First” diehard, at least some countermeasures should be clear. Immigration hardliners should be be clamoring to make college affordable for every qualified native-born American. No one should be more eager than the nativist crowd to flood state schools with funding, expand Pell grants and other scholarship opportunities for lower-income students, reform the system of indenture that college loans have become. Instead, by and large, they are doing the exact opposite.
There’s a cultural side to this, too, and it merits a much more careful treatment than I am giving it here. But just because a point of view may carry emotional resonance or political clout doesn’t make it economically wise. Propping up the coal industry, fighting to make creationism and Confederate revisionism welcome in curricula, lampooning expertise rather broadening access to it…no party truly intent upon building a giant American workforce for a roaring American economy would choose to engage in any of that. Today’s GOP is enmeshed in all of it.
So much for the home front. Now, very briefly, for the “shitholes”:
Although sadly resigned to America's inability to accommodate all, I could not be more appalled by the so-called-conservative threatening, hectoring and demonizing of desperate people who come here in flight from poverty, violence or persecution. But again, just for the sake of argument, let’s adopt the mindset from which such vitriol flows.
If the U.S. abhors the idea of absorbing refugees, shouldn’t the U.S. be doing everything it can to ensure that as few people as possible become refugees in the first place?
Or, to put it in the "tough language" that everyone seems to find so compelling at the moment: If we can’t bear to have the human shithole-sludge washing up on our clean American shores, isn’t it squarely in our national interest to have some serious strategies in place to prevent quite so many “shitholes” from forming?
If the most powerful nation on earth were serious about reducing the number of “low-skilled” immigrants seeking asylum within its borders, it would bring major, varied and constant resources to bear on assuring that fewer people needed asylum to begin with. It would pride itself, for example, on maintaining an excellent sense of the elements that, time and time again, breed misery and unrest abroad, and do its utmost to keep those elements from rising at all, let alone boiling over. In this light, any famine, war, drought or dictatorship abroad would be seen as a major problem at home, if only for its potential to send streams of unwanted wastrels our way.
Of course, America’s chronically-pathetic levels of foreign aid would markedly rise, as would rigorous oversight mechanisms designed to keep that aid both honest and effective. But more than that, every U.S. policy would be evaluated partially – not entirely, but partially – in terms of its global effects. No farm bill, for example, would go anywhere without a full airing of its impact on food prices in Africa. In the area of trade, at least some “losing” would be allowed for, on the grounds that countries that never "win" on any level have a real knack for bursting into flame. And for those occasions when refugee crises did nonetheless arise, the U.S. would strive to be at the center of the response, teaming with allies to distribute the burden of intake and promote the conditions for eventual return.
OK, fantasy or no fantasy, one mustn’t get carried away.
Clearly, there is a strict limit to how much even the most outward-looking, globally-minded America could do to influence the events and conditions that impel people to flee their homelands, or to entice other countries to coordinate their aims with ours . But the Trump-led GOP absolutely prides itself on making no effort whatsoever.
It’s not just the continuous starving and scalping of the State Department, nor the bizarre shunning of the kinds of relationships necessary to achieve such aims. It’s the whole conception of all international policy as a zero sum game. To hear this administration tell it, the ideal international policy consists of unlimited funding for the military, and nothing but derision for everything else.
NAFTA puts it in a nutshell. Even to the (limited) degree that the president has a point when he excoriates that agreement for “sending jobs to Mexico,” he seems totally unaware of what ought to be a huge upside for himself and his anti-immigrant base: those jobs then get done by Mexicans who therefore, y'know, stay in Mexico.
Of course, that's no more comfort to the U.S. worker losing a job than is the tone-deaf globalist's pointing out that macroeconomically, it's fine, because for every job NAFTA kills in one part of the country, it creates three in another, or whatever. But no policy invested in that worker’s well-being would try to hide him from the fact of globalization. It would concentrate on finding ways for him to weather its perilous storms, and for his kids to ride its wave (see above)
No question, Democrats blast Republicans all the time on income inequality, college affordability, and shirking of global responsibility. But for some reason, they fail to knit all that right into the debate on immigration, where it so clearly belongs. I cannot for the life of me figure out why Democrats stick so doggedly to a formula of compassion and racial enlightenment, plus maybe a little sprinkling of immediate economic benefit (the tech people from India can come in and spur employment for the construction people in Indiana, and whatnot.) I don't know why, on such a central issue, they aren't constantly calling the Republican hardliners' bluff.
Lord knows I’m not a Democrat looking to get myself elected. But if I were, and some America-Firster were trying to paint me as anti-American for being pro-immigrant, this is what I would say:
“If the right were to get anything like its way on immigration without seriously altering its views on education, trade and foreign policy, the U.S. population would, as they seem to hope, consist proportionally of many more native-born white Americans. But they’d be native-born white Americans forced to struggle economically while watching the rest of the world pass them by.
Is that really the sense in which the GOP wants to grow its base?”