Koch is Woke? The Democratic Party’s Immigration Conundrum

• April 8, 2019 3:35 pm


Immigration is a hot topic again following the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who announced her departure over the weekend, reportedly as a result of President Donald Trump's anger over her handling of the situation on the Mexican border.

It will certainly be a major issue in the 2020 general election. Donald Trump won't stop being Donald Trump, and the Democratic nominee will be well within his or her comfort zone attacking the president's "heartless" / "inhumane" / "racist" / "fascist" policies. They will proclaim their support for "comprehensive immigration reform" and other "commonsense solutions."

A more diligent media establishment that the one we currently have would challenge the eventual Democratic nominee, and all those seeking the nomination, to articulate affirmative answers to basic policy questions about immigration policy. Because there are quite of few of them the Democratic Party as a whole has not adequately adjudicated.

For example: Are national borders good? Or a moral abomination? Should illegal immigrants be deported? Is the Canadian system, which favors highly-educated, highly-skilled immigrants, a bad system? It remains to be seen to what extent the Democratic candidates are willing to have these discussions as they begin jockeying for position in a crowded field.

Such a debate within the Democratic Party would be illuminating. Take the question of "open borders." Do the Democrats running for president believe it is morally wrong to deny entry to anyone seeking entrance to the United States? At least one of them does not, although he's technically not a Democrat.

Sanders has weighed in on "open borders" before, dismissing it as a "Koch brothers proposal" in a July 2015 interview with Vox's Ezra Klein.

Ezra Klein
You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view. I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders. About sharply increasing …

Bernie Sanders
Open borders? No, that's a Koch brothers proposal.

Ezra Klein

Bernie Sanders
Of course. That's a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States. …

Ezra Klein
But it would make …

Bernie Sanders
Excuse me …

Ezra Klein
It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn't it?

Bernie Sanders
It would make everybody in America poorer —you're doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don't think there's any country in the world that believes in that…

Sanders was subsequently denounced by Vox's Dylan Matthews for his "ugly and "wrongheaded" "fear of immigrant labor."

There is research to back up Sanders' claim that admitting lots of under-educated, unskilled immigrants from impoverished countries increases poverty in the host country—childhood poverty in particular. Take Canada, for example, a country being lauded in the pages of the New York Times for "winning the war on poverty," while elsewhere in the Times, the United States is scolded for having one of the highest child poverty rates among developed countries.

Canada has an immigration system that favors immigrants with high education levels, language proficiency, and other skills. The United States, on the other hand, does not. By comparison, 68 percent of immigrants to Canada have at least some post-high school education, compared to just 49 percent of immigrants to the United States. Just 32 percent of Canadian immigrants have a high school diploma or less, compared to a majority (51 percent) of U.S. immigrants. What do Democrats have to say about that?

Sanders is also right that wonky libertarians, pro-business Republicans, growth-oriented economists on the right, etc.— groups that typically receive support from Koch-aligned political organizations — favor a more relaxed immigration system, if not "open borders," that would welcome almost anyone with a desire to join the (cheap) labor force.

When it comes to immigration policy, Democrats haven't always seen eye-to-eye with the Kochs.  The party was more divided back in 2007, when Bernie Sanders and then-Sen. Barack Obama helped defeat a bipartisan immigration reform bill by backing an amendment to end a guest worker program opposed by the AFL-CIO and some pro-union Democrats because, in Sanders' words, it "displaces American workers and lowers wages in this country by bringing low-wage workers from abroad into America."

That largely class-based appeal has lost purchase in today's version of the Democratic Party, which in all its "wokeness" has embraced a sweeping pro-immigration position in an effort to appeal to Hispanic voters, and to signal the party's opposition to things that are racist, such as wanting to deport illegal immigrants or trying to stop them from entering in the first place. Having an unabashed restrictionist like Trump in office has made it easier for Democrats to define their position solely in terms of what they oppose, i.e., anything Trump does.

It would be useful to hear the Democratic presidential candidates have this debate amongst themselves, and offer answers to questions like: What, if any, restrictions on immigration do you support? Should we favor certain immigrants over others? And so on. Bernie is set in his ways. He's also the frontrunner, so you can bet that "woke" rival candidates will attack him for rejecting the Koch position on immigration. That's the world we're living in.