Wall Street Journal (Op-Ed)
By William A. Galston
May 23, 2017
Many Democrats, especially those who style themselves progressives, are hoping they can expand their appeal to white working-class voters by re-orienting their economic program without changing anything else. As a recent report from the Center for American Progress puts it, progressives can never outflank President Trump’s cultural appeal without contradicting their values and history. Thus their future strategy “requires more concentration—not less—on economic concerns.”
Like center-left parties throughout the West, Democrats need new economic policies addressed to the people and places that have been excluded from the fruits of economic growth. But a mountain of data suggests that economics alone will not suffice.
A recent survey on European attitudes found that while 65% of the European Union’s population viewed their economic prospects with confidence, 53% saw globalization as a threat to their country’s identity. Antipathy to the free movement of labor was a major, if not decisive, factor in Britain’s decision to leave the EU.
According to a recent survey of American attitudes conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 68% of the white working class think that the U.S. is in danger of losing its culture and identity and that the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influences. Sixty-two percent believe that newcomers from other countries threaten American culture. Forty-eight percent say that they often feel like strangers in their own country.
History helps explain these sentiments. Between 1870 and 1920, an immigration surge raised the number of foreign-born residents in the U.S. to a then-record 13.9 million, more than 13% of the population. Meantime, immigrants’ national origins shifted from Northern Europe to Eastern and Southern Europe.
In the 1920s Congress reacted to these trends by enacting laws to reduce the overall number of immigrants and to alter the mix of countries they came from. The new system featured national quotas based on each country’s share of the U.S. population prior to the influx of Slavs, Poles, Jews and Italians. These policies achieved their goals. By the mid-1960s, even as the size of the total population swelled, the number of foreign-born residents stood well below 1920s levels, and their share of the population had fallen by about two-thirds, to only 4.7%. Residents of only three countries—Ireland, Germany and the U.K.—received nearly 70% of the visas permitted under the national quota system.
In 1965, however, everything changed. A new immigration law abolished the national-origins quotas and established family reunification as the principal purpose of immigration policy. This produced another surge of foreign-born residents: from 9.6 million in 1970 to 43.3 million in 2015. Immigration expanded much more rapidly than the native population grew, and the immigrant share nearly tripled, from 4.7% to 13.5%—slightly higher than the level that helped trigger a nativist reaction a century earlier.
The white-working-class reaction to these developments is politically significant. The PRRI survey found that cultural attitudes related to immigration were second only to party identification as the most powerful determinant of voter preference in 2016. Holding all other factors constant, white working-class voters who said they often feel like strangers in their own country and who believe that the U.S. needs protection against foreign influences were 3.5 times as likely to favor Mr. Trump as were those who did not share these concerns. By contrast, white working-class voters who rated their financial condition as fair or poor were 1.7 times as likely to support Hillary Clinton as were those who rated their financial condition more highly.
America’s continuing failure to reform its immigration policy has poisoned our politics, and long-established policies require updating to meet the needs of today’s economy and society.
Nearly a decade ago I participated in a bipartisan commission on immigration reform. Our principal recommendation was to cut back family-reunification visas in favor of an emphasis on individuals with higher education or advanced technical skills. We also advocated enhanced temporary-worker programs coupled with rigorously enforced protections for wages and working conditions.
To ensure that these temporary workers legally enter the U.S., we agreed that Congress should authorize and fund a mandatory state-of-the-art electronic workplace verification system. We advocated a new partnership between government and community-based nonprofit organizations to accelerate immigrants’ acquisition of English fluency as well as their civic integration. Immigrants present without legal authorization for five years or more would qualify for legal status and a path to citizenship contingent on paying a fine, demonstrating a commitment to work, passing a criminal background check, and studying English, U.S. history, and American government. According to the PRRI survey, this policy is now endorsed by 59% of white working-class voters.
If Congress can break the longstanding logjam on immigration reform, the U.S. can boost its economy, reduce partisan polarization, and help heal a divided society.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com