Immigration and the American Political Imagination

More so than any time since the days of eugenics, nativists occupy prominent positions at virtually every level of government. The Trump administration is stacked with anti-immigrant activists – with Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Julia Hahn, Mike Pompeo and Julie Kirchner among them. Congressional xenophobes – like Steve King, Louie Gohmert, and Tom Cotton – are pushing their own policies aiming to cut legal immigration in half, to strip sanctuary cities and campuses of federal funding, to declare English the national language, and to eliminate birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented peoples. The immigration restriction lobby, recently marginalized as Republicans grappled with demographic shifts, finds itself empowered and emboldened. Add this to the myriad anti-immigrant laws passed at the subnational level in recent years, and you have a clear and undeniable trend with a horrifying human cost. Less than a year post-election, the results are already pouring in: immigration raids targeting those whose only crime was to seek out a better life; families torn apart by deportation; an increase in hate crimes against immigrants and people who look like they might be immigrants; and the cruel uncertainty awaiting young Dreamers.

Amid the nativist maelstrom, the Left has, by and large, responded with compassion and solidarity; with sit-ins, marches, and protests in support of immigrant and refugee rights. In order to translate this activism into justice for immigrants, though, we need to go beyond protest to articulate a coherent philosophy on immigration – an alternative vision of immigrants’ rights grounded in a structural critique of capitalism and a commitment to working class solidarity both within and across borders. The ferocity of contemporary nativism makes this project all the more pressing. This is something that we’ve struggled to do, however, because liberals, progressives and a not-insignificant-number of self-professed radicals remain mired in nationalist lenses – their own version of “America First” that is less jingoistic than that advanced by conservatives, but perhaps all the more insidious because its particularistic vision of political community marches under the banner of multiculturalism and social justice.

Immigration and the Nationalist Imaginary

Immigration has always made for strange bedfellows. The profoundly racist anti-immigrant laws of the eugenics era were cobbled together through a bipartisan coalition of progressives, labor unions, environmentalists, and conservative reactionaries – with healthy doses of support from both Main Street and the halls of academia. The radical Left wasn’t immune from the dredges of social Darwinism and biological racism; they, too, frequently marched in lock step with the restrictionists of their time. This is not ancient history, either. I have written elsewhere about how the modern American immigration restriction movement is itself comprised of many activists – from John Tanton to Roy Beck to Dick Lamm – whose political ideologies were forged in struggles for environmental protection, reproductive health, and even civil rights.

Organizations on the Left still have varied and complex positions on immigration, but the past ten-to-twenty years have witnessed a notable evolution among progressives and radicals. From the 1980s into the early 2000s, for example, environmentalists heatedly debated the desirability of further immigration restrictions. In recent years, though, progressive groups – like the Sierra Club, EarthJustice, and Greenpeace – have advocated for comprehensive reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented peoples currently in the country. A few radical groups – like EarthFirst! and RisingTide – have gone even further in rejecting borders as unnatural “scars on the earth.” This shift by environmental groups, many of whom formerly supported restrictionist policies, is perhaps the most marked, but greens are not alone here: unions, like the SEIU, have embraced immigrant workers as the foundation on which to build a 21st century labor movement; racial justice organizations have worked to further extend their anti-racist organizing into undocumented communities; and “undocuqueer” has gone from a slogan to a movement within a movement.

+ These shifts are notable, but they have yet to puncture the hegemonic assumptions that drive immigration politics. Our societal common sense on immigration politics goes something like this:

+ The nation-state is the proper locus of political community and ethical obligation;

+ The national social contract depends upon clearly delimited borders between countries;

+ In order to protect the sanctity of borders and, thus, the sanctity of our social contract, numerical restrictions on immigration are necessary;

+ The transgression of borders through illegal immigration is a threat to both the rule of law and the national identity on which our political order depends.

Pointing out these commonalities is not to deny very real political differences on the issue of immigration (e.g. liberals and progressives are more likely to advocate for increases in legal immigration, and to embrace protections for Dreamers). These differences are not insignificant, but they also aren’t as great as they should be. Debate occurs within the safe confines of nationalist lenses, revolving not around whether the aforementioned assumptions are correct, but over the extent to which immigration can help “us.” Nativists falsely label those who oppose their cruel program of wall-building, fear-mongering, and deportation as “open borders activists.” If only that were actually the case.

Take Bernie Sanders, for instance. In a discussion of immigration during his Presidential campaign, he called open borders “a Koch Brothers proposal” which “says essentially that there is no United States.” He continued:

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. If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy…

This position, while surprisingly to some, is far from unusual among liberals and social democrats. The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart recently waxed nostalgic for the days when Leftists recognized “that low-skilled immigrants depressed the wages of low-skilled American workers and strained America’s welfare state.” Economist Paul Krugman routinely echoes a familiar Keynesian stance in arguing that immigration puts stress on the welfare state and depresses wages for the working class. “Realistically,” he concludes, “we’ll need to reduce the inflow of low skilled immigrants” through “better controls on illegal immigration.” Even when arguing that we have some minimal ethical responsibility to immigrants, he takes care to note that he – and most progressives – “do not support open borders.”

Sanders, Beinart and Krugman aren’t anti-immigrant; they’ve all opposed recent Republican measures as immoral, and their preferred immigration policies are considerably better than anything we currently have on the books. Still, they embrace the assumption that, on this particular issue, the nation is the lens through which to make sense of politics; “our” ethical obligations to fellow Americans – regardless of who they are and how they live – trump our obligations to immigrants. The result, in this case, is a willingness to embrace flawed compromise measures, like recent comprehensive immigration reform proposals that couple a path to citizenship with massive increases in border militarization, funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and workplace enforcement programs that push undocumented peoples further into the shadows. One of the foremost tasks of today’s Left is to call this nationalistic lens into question.

Immigration and the Radical Imagination

One alternative to the nationalist imagination, according to the late political theorist, Iris Marion Young, is a “social connection model of global responsibility.” Young argued that our ethical commitments ought to be tethered to actually-existing social relationships rather than political boundaries. In contemporary life, she observed, society increasingly cuts across national borders, even in the absence of robust transnational political institutions in which people have access to meaningful participation:

…[S]ocial connection is prior to political institutions. This is the great insight of social contract theory. The social connections of civil society may well exist without political institutions to govern them. A society consists in connected or mutually influencing institutions and practices through which people enact their projects and seek their happiness, and in doing so affect the conditions under which others act, often profoundly…

The presence of transnational societal relations is particularly clear with regard to the supposed “problem” of undocumented immigration. Americans of all classes rely heavily on the labor of undocumented workers for the low-cost meat and vegetables that we eat, for the services that we consume, for the cleanliness of our schools and workplaces, and for the construction of the dwellings in which we reside (to name but a few examples). Through these transnational forms of social connection, a working class person in the United States is bound to the Mexican farmer who harvests his lettuce, the Ecuadorian hotel maid cleaning her overpriced hotel room for $5/hour, and the Somali meat-packer struggling to subsist in the shadows of the heartland. It goes without saying that patterns of social connection are not limited to those between worker and consumer, and none of this is to deny domestic-level push factors for migration (like political corruption that benefits foreign elites and corporations), but the examples point toward a complex global capitalist structure through which we are asymmetrically linked to populations near and far. Contra many cosmopolitan thinkers, Young was quick to point out that our ethical duty to ameliorate structural injustices is contingent upon our relative position within structures of social connection; corporations and state leaders have more of a responsibility to enact change than do workers or displaced peoples. Of course, these abstractly-apportioned ethical duties inevitably fall by the wayside amid the imperatives of capital accumulation and state self-interest; the point is for activists to deploy these ethical claims to generate transnational collective action against the forces of injustice.

And yet, in spite of the ever-increasing density of transnational connections, a cosmopolitan sense of obligation to those with whom we are enmeshed in social relations remains shockingly weak. Moreover, where an awareness of global interconnection exists, it is too frequently associated with the vagaries of Davos and the excesses of Dubai – global institutions and cities that cater to a world of transnational elites. This is the cosmopolitanism of Thomas Friedman and the Clintons; a call for humanity writ large to embrace the flow of capital and labor across borders under conditions dictated by capital. It’s a vision whose realization has meant hardship for American workers; one that many have correctly rejected as nothing more than bourgeois elitism gone global. So long as this form of cosmopolitanism – rather than a radical one, like that advanced by Young – prevails in the popular imaginary, the working class will revert back to the comfortable ethics of the nation-state in debates over immigration.

It is surely this elitist cosmopolitanism that Sanders has in mind when he rejects “open borders.” The dichotomy that he constructs between a world of elite-driven “open borders” and democratic nation-states is a false one, though. While the state remains an important tool of the Left, it is a mistake to treat “the nation-state” as a sacred institution or as the commonsensical unit of social analysis. Sanders remains beholden to what sociologist Ulrich Beck terms “methodological nationalism,” a way of seeing in which the nation-state is the analytical prism through which discussions of power, inequality, and social position become intelligible. The problem is that this way of seeing disables our ability to understand the truly global parameters of social inequality – e.g. at the scale of the world capitalist system. The tendency of liberals and progressives to couch their opposition to the cosmopolitanism of neoliberals in the language and ethics of liberal nationalism amounts to what Nancy Fraser has called a “gerrymander[ing] of political space at the expense of the poor and despised.”

Clearly, we have ethical obligations and political responsibilities to those with whom are lives are mutually bound. What is needed is a political narrative through which to advance this transnational ethic: a Left cosmopolitanism that works to unite workers across the world – especially those who lack the state protections associated with citizenship status.

Workers of the World, Unite?

There are, nonetheless, objections to the cosmopolitan approach to immigration from the progressive (and, sometimes, radical) Left that merit attention. The most common is the concern that high levels of immigration serve the interests of the transnational capitalist class by creating an industrial reserve army that depresses wages and disciplines labor. It is certainly true that industry (agriculture, meat-packing, construction, etc.) desires more labor to push down wages. Marx knew this, Steinbeck described it in The Grapes of Wrath, and the United Farm Workers confronted it in the fields of California. In the short term, immigration can increase competition for some low wage jobs by providing a floating population of surplus labor. What those who draw on Leftist thought to argue for restricting immigration miss is the political dimension of this struggle. Marx didn’t call for a rearguard nationalism, Steinbeck didn’t support the banks driving the Okies out of the plains or the growers and cops cracking down on unions, and the farm workers were against scabs (regardless of nationality), but – contrary to the talking points of immigration restriction groups – eventually recognized the ethical and political necessity of organizing rather than demonizing immigrant labor.

Why did they take this position? Because the one thing that capital fears more than immigration restrictions is immigrants’ rights. Although neoliberal actors, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, The Wall Street Journal, and the Cato Institute, generally support increased immigration, they do not want open borders; rather, they want particular forms of labor, that flow to particular locales, under particular sets of rules. Immigration is, to draw on Saskia Sassen, the byproduct of a political economic system in which expulsion occupies a central role; a system that thrives on expedited migration for corporate elites and increased barriers and surveillance for “low-skilled” workers. Such an immigration policy requires strong yet flexible borders that can be deployed and enforced in varied ways. What the financiers and CEOs of the world dread is a system in which people can move freely across borders with ample political protections. From their perspective, freedom of movement tethered to a wide range of civil liberties and labor rights would be a worst-case scenario; creating immigrant workers who are unafraid, out of the shadows, and able to form coalitions and bonds of solidarity with workers who have citizenship status.

Still, there’s no denying that nationalism has real pull across the political spectrum. Making sense of a globalizing world can be dizzying, and the sickness induced by it can lead people to revert to the apparent comfort of nationalist nostalgia. There is a seductive appeal, in such a conjuncture, for the American Left to “strategically” woo the oft-mentioned “white working class” by embracing a slightly less cruel, less overtly-racist form of immigration restrictionism, justified through the supposed common sense of liberal nationalism. American history serves as a cautionary tale against this political pivot: mid-20th century liberal nationalism brought us the S.S. St. Louis and Japanese internment, while late-20th and early-21st century liberal nationalism has paved the way for a Sonoran desert graveyard. Today, the path of liberal nationalism inevitably ends in gated communities and guarded walls; death and suffering dressed up in the rhetorical garb of universal rights and social welfare. It projects a comforting image of control to those segments of the working class included within hegemonic forms of nationalism, while fracturing working class solidarity and increasing economic hardship.

With a changing climate, rampant economic inequality, and growing political instability, the future will almost certainly be one of more immigration. Immigrants, of course, are a heterogeneous grouping, and immigration is a multifaceted issue; there is room for debate among Leftists here. But this debate should be grounded in a rigorous analysis of the structures and forces linking us together – the forms of social connection that exist in the world – rather than presupposing a national “we” and a statist lens. The continued reliance on a liberal nationalist ethic reflects a failure of the American political imagination; a Leftist intervention is sorely needed.

John Hultgren teaches politics at Bennington College in Vermont. He is the author of Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-immigrant Politics in America (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).