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Analysis | Economic necessity will eventually force immigration reform


(The third of a three-part series on immigration. The first and second parts are “Biden’s Venezuelan migrant deal won’t fix the border” and “Mexico’s Faustian border deal with the US will unravel,” respectively.)

The midterms are over. Democrats survived the chaos on the southwestern border. Some pro-immigrant groups dare to hope that there will be political space for bipartisan immigration reform in the next Congress.

It will not. The Republicans’ attempt to weaponize images of immigrants gathering at the border failed to produce a landslide. But that doesn’t mean immigration policy has become non-toxic.

Rational reforms, the kind that could ease the country’s overwhelmed border and turn immigration into some legal, humane process, remain as far out of reach of the US political system as when Donald Trump came down the golden escalator and launched himself into the presidency by calling Mexicans thugs and promising a border wall to seal them off.

Throughout MAGA America, immigration has brought to the fore passions that cannot be contained by appeals to economic logic. It will be answered primarily with mistrust, anger, fear. Instead of focusing on the benefits immigrants bring to wealthy aging societies, millions of Americans choose to believe that the foreigners have come to replace them.

Even President Joe Biden, who pledged to end Trump’s COVID-era deportation policy, deployed it to deter Venezuelans from seeking asylum in the US. Instead of tearing down Trump’s border wall, he’s filling in some highly trafficked gaps in it.

MAGA America’s fear of immigrants will not only stand in the way of sensible immigration policies. It can still send Americans to a very dark place.

What would become MAGA America was a more contented place the last time the political system enacted “comprehensive immigration reform.” The nation was held together by the threat posed by a common Soviet enemy. China was poor and rural. Globalization was not yet a thing. Crucially, non-whites made up only 20% of the population. The most famous Latino living was Desi Arnaz.

Ronald Reagan screwed up. His 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized millions of people living illegally in the US, promised to stop future unauthorized immigration by punishing employers who hired undocumented workers and offering a way to legally hire foreigners .

It failed. By 1990, the undocumented population had risen again to 3.5 million. Ten years after IRCA, the share of Americans wanting less immigration reached its highest ever. And shots at reform by Presidents George W. Bush in 2007 and Barack Obama in 2013 never made it to Congress. The US had instead turned to building walls.

The first fencing was built along the border between San Diego and Tijuana during Bill Clinton’s administration. By the end of the Trump administration, the wall spanned some 700 miles of the 3,000-mile southwestern border. Given the direction of US politics, Trump’s additions are unlikely to be the last.

President Biden used his first day in office to send Congress another comprehensive immigration reform bill. But this is no longer Reagan’s America. Globalization and automation have robbed rural America of economic opportunity and decimated much of its industrial heartland. Immigration has more than doubled the non-white share of the population.

The safe white majorities that held unchallenged power in the 1980s feel much more insecure today. While they may not have given Republicans the landslides they hoped for in the meantime, they retain substantial political power. And they don’t want America to get any browner.

This attitude is not unique to America. Immigration is also confusing white majorities across much of Europe. Italy and France are playing hot potato with ships carrying migrants from North Africa. The British, whose desperation to “take back control of our borders” led them to leave the European Union, are paying France to prevent tens of thousands of migrants from crossing the English Channel in dinghies.

Immigration is changing the politics of the so-called liberal democracies of the West. From Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, the hostility of aging white natives to the change immigrants represent is driving authoritarian regimes that promise to protect natives from outsiders.

This poses a critical challenge to liberalism in the US and abroad. According to Gallup, 42 million people in Latin America say they want to migrate to the US. A series of interlocking challenges, from conflict to climate change, are driving millions of people from Africa in search of a safer, more dignified life elsewhere. The migratory pressure will not decrease.

However, the midterm elections offer a glimmer of hope. Further immigration may exacerbate the racial and ethnic paranoia that define MAGA America’s politics. But on November 8, voters presented a picture of a nation that can evaluate its self-interest and subdue its dark passions.

In terms of economic well-being, Americans’ self-interest calls for more immigrants, not fewer.

Foreigners make up more than 18% of the non-farm labor force, up from less than 15% in 2005.

Without new immigrants, the Pew Research Center predicts, the working-age population will shrink from 173 million in 2015 to 166 million in 2035.

Aging, ailing Americans will struggle to find the nurses and home care workers they need.

There are loads of immigrants out there eager to do the work and help the US – including MAGA America – become a more prosperous country. Sooner or later, a majority of American voters, and the politicians who represent them, will have no choice but to support legislation that embraces that reality.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

• Republicans have a special obligation to Venezuelan migrants: Matthew Yglesias

• More soldiers won’t quell Mexico’s rampant violence: Shannon O’Neil

• Now it’s time for a deal on the dreamers: editors

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eduardo Porter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on Latin America, US economic policy and immigration. He is the author of “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise” and “The Price of Everything: Finding Method in the Madness of What Things Cost.”

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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