Neither political party is speaking to the collective interests of America's wage-earners. Each party, in its own way, is playing wage-earners off against one another. America's wage-earners deserve a party which recognizes that the working-class (and Americans generally) share common interests and a common fate.
The Democratic Party's elites have thoroughly abandoned their mid-1990s skepticism about increasing future low-skill immigration, and have tried to present support for upfront amnesty and increased low-skill immigration as a referendum on whether Hispanic Americans (and nonwhites generally) are to be accepted as full American citizens. You are either for upfront amnesty (and increased low-skill immigration) or you are with the racist nativists.
When it comes to moderate, working-class whites, Democrats have adopted the attitude that if you can't win them over, you can at least demoralize some of them into not voting. The Democrats can attack the Republicans as the party of the uncaring rich, and these voters will stay home in despair of both parties.
While the Democrats take a divide-and-conquer approach to the working-class, the Republicans are divided among themselves. The majority of the party's elites favor a combination of upfront amnesty and increased low-skill immigration that is opposed by most of the party's voters.
The public and politic case for upfront amnesty and increased low-skill immigration (under the label “comprehensive immigration reform”) was made by the Republican National Committee's “autopsy” of the 2012 election. Republicans needed to support upfront amnesty and increased low-skill immigration because otherwise Hispanics would never even consider voting Republican. People who disagreed needed to shut up and accept reality. The less politic version of the argument was made by a Marco Rubio aide from behind closed doors. The Rubio aide asserted that American workers “can't cut it” and needed to be replaced by immigrants.
The Republican opposition to upfront amnesty often plays the game of division from the other side. From Steve King's comments about unauthorized immigrant children to Donald Trump's promises of mass deportations, it can seem that our politics is forcing us to choose between the foreign and native-born members of our working-class.
It doesn't have to be this way. Ultimately, the native-born and foreign-born workers of America that are already here are in this together. Low-skill workers are experiencing stagnant wages, family instability, high unemployment, and low labor force participation even as the economy has been growing for six years. Foreign-born workers are going to have American-born children and those children will face the struggles common throughout the struggling American working-class.
There is a lively debate among economists about the impact of future low-skill immigration. George Borjas recently found that the Mariel immigration surge substantially reduced the wages of native-born low-skill workers in the Miami area. Other economists argue that future low-skill immigration primarily reduces the wages of current foreign-born workers.
It doesn't matter which side is right. We shouldn't be designing our immigration system to reduce the wages of either our native-born or our current foreign-born workers—much less both.
We should be focusing on ways to make work and family formation easier for both groups. That should be our priority. An expanded child tax credit could offset the payroll tax liability of parents and increase the size of their pay checks. A refundable health insurance tax credit could make working a better deal even if one's employer did not offer health insurance coverage. Relocation subsidies could help people move to places where jobs are more plentiful.
Meanwhile, our immigration system could be reformed in order to work better for America's low-skill workers of all backgrounds. The unemployment rate for college graduates is 2.5% and their labor force participation rate is 74.1%. The unemployment rate for the least-skilled segment of the labor market is 7.4% and their labor force participation rate is 45.6%.
We should steer future immigration in the direction of higher-skills (where there appears to be a tighter labor market) and reduce future low-skill immigration. We should implement this policy through a visa tacking system and mandatory employment verification. Once those enforcement programs are fully in place (not promised, actually in place), our residual population of unauthorized immigrants should receive both amnesty and a fairly speedy path to US citizenship.
The political games of the Democrats and Republicans are distracting from the shared problems of our wage-earners. Divisive, identity politics games cannot be the solution. The solution is a combination of pro-work and pro-family policies, and a reformed immigration system that puts the poorest Americans first.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.