Acton Institute Powerblog

The Poison of Anti-Immigration Protectionism

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As the number of Republicans vying for the presidency reaches new levels of absurdity, candidates are scrambling to affirm their conservative bona fides. If you can stomach the pandering, it’s a good time to explore the ideas bouncing around the movement, and when necessary, prune off the poisonous limbs.

Alas, for all of its typical promotions of free enterprise, free trade, and individual liberty, the modern conservative movement retains a peculiar and ever-growing faction of folks who harbor anti-immigration sentiments that contradict and discredit their otherwise noble views. For these, opposing immigration is not about border control, national security, or the rule of law (topics for another day), but about “protecting American jobs” and “protecting the American worker.”

Consider the recent shift of Scott Walker. Once a supporter of legal immigration, Walker now says that immigration hurts the American worker, and that “the next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, protecting American workers and American wages.” Or Rick Santorum, who has made no bones about his bid for the protectionist bloc. “American workers deserve a shot at [good] jobs,” he said. “Over the last 20 years, we have brought into this country, legally and illegally, 35 million mostly unskilled workers. And the result, over that same period of time, workers’ wages and family incomes have flatlined.”

Unfortunately, these attitudes run deeper than surface-level platitudes or fringe thinkers. According to a recent study by Pew Research Center, only 27 percent of Republicans say that immigration (even legal immigration) has a positive impact on our country: “[F]ar more (63%) say that immigrants are a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care. Republican views on this question have turned more negative over the last year. The share of Republicans who say immigrants strengthen the country has declined from 42% in March 2014.”

immigration-pew-republicansAnd yet, when it comes to basic economic theory and observation, confirmed by the vast majority of thinkers and thought leaders in the movement at large, we see no evidence of this threat. On the contrary, we find that immigration boosts the labor market and accelerates economic growth. From the late Julian Simon to Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda to Douglas Holtz-Eakin, from AEI to Heritage to Cato (and even Brookings), the evidence only compounds.

Still, the attitudes persist, which, given their disconnect from reality and otherwise sound political principles, may indicate that the deeper issues have less to do with surface-level economic ignorance than with a more basic selfishness and distorted view of human dignity and potential.

Given America’s largely insulated and privileged position of years past, and now the “threat” of globalization, why is expanding our “internal” labor pool necessary? Why must we compete for our beloved jobs, and at far lower prices, all for “mere profit”? Why not just lock all of humanity out of the goodie box and protect “what’s ours”?

These are common questions many of us will ask internally, particularly when we find ourselves in “at-risk” jobs or industries. And yet, while such a reaction is only natural, we should be careful that we don’t sell ourselves away to such base sentiments, which can basically be reduced to, “Why do I have to share my job with Jimmy?”

Keep in mind that, on the conservative side, these same folks would be delighted to see new creators and competitors go up against Silicon Valley start-ups or Wall Street banks. Such “threats” are, in fact, opportunities for new growth and creativity. If adjustments need to be made, the moral response is not to give way to envy-induced territorialism, but to get ourselves back on track and think of new ways to contribute and create alongside and on behalf of our neighbors — old and new alike.

Indeed, once we get past our short-sighted notions of entitlement and self-preservation, we find that the Santorum school on immigration is more suited to Ehrlich’s doomsday prophecies than the ponderings of Buckley or Burke. Humans are assets, fashioned in the image of God with creative potential and unbounded relational capacity. All is gift, and we are all destined to be gift-givers in God’s grand economy of all things. We are made to build and innovate, share and collaborate, and immigrants of whatever skill set from whatever country or political system are born with that same creative capacity.

We should be careful to create the proper political order for facilitating that activity. But as those who believe in the dignity and destiny of the human person and the power of markets to arrange our activity for the prosperity of society, conservatives should recognize this protectionism as the poison it is.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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