Let them in, but never mind the neo-liberalism

Review of Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders
Jason L. Riley, Penguin USA

ON May 1, there were mass protests in cities across the United States for the rights of undocumented workers for the third year running. Exactly two weeks later, US immigration officials undertook their largest ever single site raid at the Agriprocessors kosher-meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. Descending on the factory in a convoy of buses, federal agents arrested and detained almost 400 “illegals”, mainly from Mexico and Guatemala.

Immigration a hot topic in the US, particularly within conservative circles. While some advocate zero immigration, and cheer on the racist Minute Men who use vigilante tactics to repel would be migrants at the border, large sections of big business know how crucial migrant workers are to the functioning of US capitalism.

Falling into this latter category is Jason Riley, a Wall St Journal board member whose new book, Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders, sets about demolishing the most common myths against migration, including those concerning the environment, jobs, wages, welfare, crime, and language.

I admit I had a love-hate relationship with this book. Riley is great when he makes a mockery of modern day Malthusians, who blame overpopulation for the planet’s environmental woes, and use green arguments as a thin veneer for racism.

He’s at his strongest when he cites academic studies showing that migrants neither steal the jobs, nor drive down the wages, of local workers. He argues that whilst most locals have a high school diploma and some college education, foreign-born workers tend to be either unskilled labourers, working in jobs that most locals shun, or highly skilled professionals. In 2003, for example, 30 per cent of PhD holders working in the U.S. as scientists or engineers were migrants. He writes that “There is some overlap, of course, but this skill distribution is the reason immigrants and natives for the most part aren’t competing for the same positions.”

Against “immigrant bashers” who argue that they drain the welfare and health budgets, he says: “Because the illegals who collect a paycheck also pay payroll and Social Security taxes but are denied the attendant benefits, Uncle Sam tends to come out ahead.”

Politically, Riley comes across as a Republican who bemoans the fact his party’s candidates all too often put hostility to migrants centre stage, however, he says that anti-immigrant racism has generally been a non-starter at the polls. He cites a Gallup poll which posed the question of what should be done about illegal immigrants, and found that just 13 per cent favoured deportation, while 78 per cent said they should be allowed to keep their jobs and apply for citizenship.

For all the strengths of the book, it needs pointing out that Riley is a proud neo-liberal. In his conclusion, Riley makes a naive plea to the right to be consistent: “No self-respecting free-market adherent would ever dream of supporting laws that interrupt the free movement of goods and services across borders. But when it comes to laws that hamper the free movement of workers who produce these goods and services, too many conservatives abandon their classical liberal principles”.

Yet while it seems irrational to Riley, erecting ever-greater barriers to migrants and demonising them serves an important political purpose for the contemporary capitalist state. By encouraging local workers to blame migrants for the economic problems that they face, anti-immigrant racism divides the working class movement.

Neo-liberalism isn’t Riley’s only right-wing trait. The ugly side of his conservatism was on display in a column he wrote for The Wall St Journal on the day his book came out. Titled “Keep the Immigrants, Deport the Multiculturalists”, he chastises “liberal elites who reject the concept of assimilation” and those who suggest that because “America slaughtered Indians and enslaved blacks…this wicked history means we have no right to impose a value system on others”.

Riley’s book is a healthy demolition of the arguments of the racist right. However, more progressive books advocating open border migration include those by Justin Akers Chacón & Mike Davis (Noone is Illegal: Fighting racism and state violence on the US-Mexican Border—Haymarket Books) and Teresa Hayter (Open Borders: the Case Against Immigration Controls—Pluto Press).

By Mark Goudkamp


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