The New Anti-Immigration Rhetoric

[I accidentally deleted this post from January 21, 2015.]
Groups opposing immigration have learned to moderate their tone, selectively present expert opinion or to feign expertise, and to disarm criticism by allying their opposition to progressive causes. In many cases, mainstream reporters have confused organizations such as the Center for Immigration Studies and Numbers USA with genuinely non-partisan organizations doing respectable research, allowing false claims about the economic, social, and environmental effects of immigration to enter mainstream debates. This “new anti-immigration rhetoric” is particularly dangerous because it represents itself as a contribution to democratic dialogue in favor of causes such as equity and sustainability. The quality of the arguments and the paucity of the evidence presented suggest that it is anything but.
Philip Cafaro’s The Progressive Case for Reducing Immigration provides a useful opportunity to analyze the new anti-immigration rhetoric and its success in penetrating into mainstream publications – in this case The Chronicle of Higher Education. Cafaro utilizes a series of tricks including appeal to authority, anecdote, strategic omission, and guilt by association to present arguments against immigration that have little logical, moral, or empirical support. Carafo starts with a declaration of his expertise (a philosophy professor who specializes in ethical and political philosophy), followed by his progressive political credentials to assure the audience that his motives do not include xenophobia or racism. He then sets out to disarm the critics by pointing out how many of his progressive allies disagree with his desire to reduce immigration, despite the fact that their embrace of “mass immigration” is shared by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial borders. (Here Carafo is unable to heed his own warning at the end of his article against ad hominem arguments.)
His next step is to introduce anecdotes, of Javier, an unauthorized migrant who thinks that too many immigrants lower wages for people like him, and of Tom, a hardworking American independent contractor who can’t compete with other contractors who use lowly paid “immigrants in the country illegally”. He supports the views that immigrants take jobs and lower wages with reference to the economist George J. Borjas. Cafaro does not acknowledge how many Borjas’ views are disputed by many economists who see the economic effects of immigration to be largely positive (though how benefits and burdens are distributed among the population at different levels of government can create challenges). This omissions leads non-specialists to assume that Borjas represents the consensus in his field. 

Having set the tone, Carafo sets up his argument. He admits there’s something to be said for allowing people to immigrate to the United States (or not deporting people already here), but insists we need to face up to the tradeoffs. He proceeds to throw out a series of dichotomies – growth versus inequality, ethnic diversity versus stabilizing the population, more people versus wildlife habitat and productive farmlands, more opportunities for foreigners versus foreign elites deciding to share the wealth with their compatriots. The point here is to show how reasonable people might disagree on where to place their allegiance. In fact, none of these alternatives precludes the other: economies can grow and redistribute goods more equitably, diverse populations can be stable, many policies besides population growth affect farmland and wildlife habits, and the connection between preventing immigration and progressive policies abroad is tenuous at best.

Once the reader has pondered the need for these tradeoffs, Carafo presents his argument. Post-1965 immigration has brought in too many less-skilled, less-educated workers with predictable results, driving down wages, breaking unions, and – remarkably – leading to higher incarceration rates for African Americans. His evidence for these causal claims is a reference to a controversial paper by Borjas and his colleagues. (Here is a response to Borjas by Diana Furchtgott-Roth. Media matters also has a useful discussion here. Even Borjas and his colleagues are circumspect about the correlation between immigration and the incarceration of African Americans.) His only other source is the Center for Immigration Studies which has a long history of producing non-peer reviewed “research” (for more on the Center for Immigration Studies, see coverage by the Southern Poverty Law Center  and Right Wing Watch).
Now that he has burnished his progressive credentials by his concern for the American working class and African Americans, he gets to the crux of his argument: population growth is the cause of most of the United States’ environmental problems. (Here his reference is to “research” by Roy Beck and his colleagues at NumbersUSA, another organization often covered by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Right Wing Watch. Neither the Center for Immigration Studies nor NumbersUSA produces research that appears in peer reviewed journals or that receives discussion for its merits in Migration Studies.) Again, he provides anecdotal evidence that meeting the country’s environmental challenges requires stabilizing the population, something he claims would have occurred already except for the current rate of immigration.
He ends by telling the audience that the economic and environmental arguments are clear. Though progressives are compassionate, care about would-be immigrants, and value diversity without strict limits to immigration, the environment will be undermined by “flabby generosity”. He ends with the dismissal of anyone who attributes nefarious intentions such as racism to his views and reiterating his commitment to the environment and to Javier, Tom, and their grandchildren.
Carafo claims that his position is progressive and deriving from a commitment to environmentalism and a vision of environmental justice for American citizens. Though it is difficult to determine his motives, what he has not provided is a serious discussion of why one might limit immigration. The point is not that arguments – including environmental arguments – for restricting immigration have no merit.
Rather, the public and the media need to be able to distinguish when an author is making a genuine contribution to democratic dialogue and when the author is driven by ideology, fear, or baser motivations. Here are some questions to ask that may be of use.
First, does the author arguing for restricting immigration seriously engage the literature in the social sciences on the effects of immigration? Does she or he acknowledge broad agreement among scholars when it exists and identify reasonable disagreements in the field? Whenever possible, references should be to established experts in the field affiliated with genuinely non-partisan organizations.
Second, does the author consider benefits and burdens to all parties, including immigrants and potential immigrants? Carafo does this to an extent, but he never attempts to weigh the benefits and burdens, instead automatically favoring people within the boundaries of the United States. It is possible to argue that co-nationals deserve priority over people from outside of the country, but this needs to be argued, not assumed.
Third, if the author makes claims about immigration having bad effects, does she or he consider other potential causes and remedies that are not directly related to immigration policy? For example, if immigration does sometimes lower wages for some workers, can this be addressed by other social and economic policies that don’t involve restricting immigration? Often, what seems to be an immigration issue is better treated as an issue that needs to be resolved by reforming larger policies and institutions.
See my follow-up to this post: the new anti-immigration rhetoric revisited
Chandra Kukathas has a powerful response to Carafo here:

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