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The Complex Relationship Between Socialists and Immigration

Socialists of different varieties have been debating immigration for a long time. Some socialists argue that immigrants bring down wages and weaken the welfare state because they raise the costs of keeping it intact. Critics think that this is just an electoral strategy, but there may be some political philosophy beyond the left’s immigration skepticism. Karl Marx himself argued that immigrants would be used to separate the working class in two camps. That being said, there are other socialists who insist that class solidarity extends beyond borders. Socialists have been inconsistent on immigration throughout history, and the debate still isn’t settled.

The recent separation of over 2,000 immigrant kids from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border energized massive protests around America, which eventually pressured President Trump to put an end to the policy of family separation. Though it’s still unclear what will happen to the immigrant families that are already separated, some left-wing activists argue this shows why Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should be abolished. But Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the most prominent members of the American left, surprised many when he dodged the question of abolishing ICE in an interview with Jake Tapper.

This is not the first time that Sanders hasn’t sounded as radical as expected on the issue of immigration. In an interview in 2015 he called open borders a “Koch Brothers idea.” Open borders is supporting the free movement of people between countries, an idea that many libertarians support—and yes, this does include some people working at foundations funded by the libertarian philanthropists Charles and David Koch. The libertarian argument is that open immigration would boost the economy and that states don’t have the authority to decide where a human being can live. Sanders resisted this line of thinking, and argued that immigration would bring wages down—an argument many socialists make, and not only in America.

But that doesn’t mean all socialists in America have the same position on immigration. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the young woman of Puerto Rican descent who just defeated Joseph Crowley in the recent Democratic primaries for Congress, supports abolishing ICE. Ocasio-Cortez identifies as a socialist and is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Unlike other leftist organizations, DSA is strikingly pro-immigrant.

In other geographies things are much different. Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern are examples of political leaders on the left that are skeptical of immigration. But it’s not just individuals on the left who oppose open immigration. In Sweden, the Social Democrats, who used to be known for their pro-immigration policies, have shifted toward a deep skepticism of immigration. This shift occurred under pressure from the far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, who seem to be gaining in the polls. But even if this makes for good electoral strategy, some activists fear that the Social Democratswould have to shift so far to the right on immigration that refugees will pay the price, when they can’t settle in Sweden because the Social Democrats have adopted a hard posture on the subject.

But it’s not just Social Democrats or Labor parties who are skeptical of open immigration. Even parties far to the left are having a vigorous debate over immigration policy. In Germany, Die Linke, a party that includes many socialists, had one of its leaders Sahra Wagenknecht arguing that immigration could have negative effects on the German working class, because the competition of foreign workers would lower labor standards and wages.

Outside of the U.S. and Europe, the issue of immigration can be even more dogmatic. The Bolivian socialist leader Evo Morales refused to receive Syrian refugees even at worst moment of the Syria crisis. This was shocking because of the avowed internationalist solidarity that the Bolivian government has espoused, and because they’re among the most far-left regimes on the region. In Peru, Justiniano Apaza, a congressman of the left-wing Broad Front called to restrict the immigration of Venezuelans escaping the political and economical crisis of their country because they work for lower wages than Peruvians. In Chile, the former socialist president Michelle Bachelet supported a law that human rights organizations questioned. They argued it restricted the entry of foreigners in a way that was hypocritical because after the coup d’etat in 1973, many Chileans become refugees all over the world.

How can this difference between immigration policies among socialists be understood? Comparing the radicalism of Ocasio-Cortez with the moderation of Sanders would suggest that age is a factor, but in other geographies this not the case. Ardern in New Zealand is probably among the most anti-immigrant politicians of the left but she is only 37.  The breakdown between far-leftists and social democrats also doesn’t explain the immigration disparity. Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany are very radical—yet on immigration their position looks similar to the more moderate Social Democrats in Sweden.

Karl Marx, the most important socialist thinker of all time, called on the workers of the world to unite. Yet it seems today that many of his followers would prefer keeping workers behind walls and fences in the name of immigration restrictionism.

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Camilo Gómez is a freelance writer and host of the History and Politics podcast.

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