By Jenny Brown
From the fall 2019 issue of the Socialist Forum, a publication of the Democratic Socialists of America.
The U.S provides very little support for parents—no paid parental leave, expensive childcare and college, unreliable health care that can bankrupt you, pay that requires both parents to work, and long working hours. These conditions are contributing to the U.S.’s lowest-ever birth rate: 1.72 children per woman, well below the 2.1 rate required for a stable population. But instead of taxing the rich to provide support for childrearing, as other countries have done, the U.S. employing class has been carefully avoiding the costs of reproduction of its workforce. These costs are instead pushed onto families, to be paid out of their strained wages. The level of exploitation has reached the point that U.S. parents, and women in particular, are having fewer kids. It’s an uncoordinated “birth strike” in response to all the unpaid work, stress, and exhaustion. And now there’s evidence the low birth rate is freaking out establishment think tanks and policymakers.
Immigration has always been the U.S. employing class’s answer to lower birth rates, so why won’t it suffice now? Immigrant workers arriving as adults substitute for the children U.S. women didn’t produce, and if they settle here permanently, may have children of their own. But now we’re seeing new levels of anti-immigrant fury while pundits and politicians plead with U.S. women to have more babies. This article will examine what is going on.
Establishment Democrats have settled on immigration “for our country’s long-term growth strategy” and as “a source of economic vitality and demographic dynamism.” Most elite Republicans agree. “Immigrants and their children have made up over half the workforce growth in the country for the last twenty years,” said Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas president Robert Kaplan in response to a crackdown on immigrants early in the Trump administration. “Because of aging demographics . . . if we do things that limit sensible immigration, we are likely to slow GDP.” Likewise, the Koch brothers, hardly known for their concern for the well-being of immigrants, have been pushing Congress to allow people brought to the U.S. as children to stay.
However, immigration has caused discomfort as well as joy for the ruling class—a contradiction that has been a recurring theme of U.S. history. In the 1870s, and again at the beginning of the twentieth century, immigration and the birth rate were often discussed in the same breath: If native-born women don’t have more children, we’ll be overrun by immigrants. Fear of Slavs, Jews, Catholics, and Chinese has been replaced with fear of Latinos and Muslims, but the alarmist claims endure: They’re disloyal, they bring foreign ideas, an alien religion, class conflict, crime, drugs, they won’t assimilate, they’ll come to outnumber “real Americans.” Still, distaste for outsiders always seems to yield when employers need their brain and muscle.
These days, while Democrats largely embrace immigration as an answer to low birth rates, the Republican establishment is split. One faction supports immigration, while the other complains that immigrants will demand government benefits, vote for Democrats, and bring class war. Even the pro-immigration side worries that the flow of immigrants is unsustainable politically, and lately they worry that the supply will run out due to declining birth rates in the immigrants’ countries of origin.
Pro-immigration Republicans are quite candid that they favor immigration to compensate for the low U.S. birth rate. In a 1997 New York Times op-ed the late Ben Wattenberg, of the pro-corporate American Enterprise Institute, identified immigration as a cheap way to cope with an aging U.S. labor force. “The median age of legal immigrants to the United States is twenty-eight,” he wrote. “These are men and women who have been raised and educated on someone else’s nickel. They typically pay into Social Security and Medicare for about forty years before drawing upon them.”
Wattenberg let slip a truth that is often hidden in the immigration debate: Immigration is a colossal rip-off of the labor and resources of the mothers, parents, communities, and countries the immigrants leave behind. This reverses the mainstream narrative that immigrants are a drain on the economy and should be grateful to be here. In fact, Mexico, India, the Dominican Republic, and other sending countries are subsidizing U.S. employers by raising these workers to adulthood.
Wattenberg favors pro-natalist tax policies, but they’re too slow for him. Even if tax breaks for parents are increased, he writes, “a baby born nine months from now won’t even start paying into life’s Ponzi scheme for a generation. . . . And that happens only after we spend a lot of money to raise and educate the child. . . . A quicker fix would be ‘instant adults.’ As it happens, they are available: immigrants.”
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is almost as frank in Immigration Wars, a book dedicated to changing U.S. laws to increase immigration: “America’s population is shrinking and aging. We need more immigrants to stem that debilitating demographic tide. . . . A demographic time bomb . . . is shaking the sustainability of our savings for retirement, the viability of the entitlement system, and our ability to create robust economic growth.”
Jeb Bush recognized that much of his party’s base opposed increased immigration, but when he wrote his book in 2013 he hoped to avoid the venomous split that occurred in 2006. Then, the U.S. House passed a bill to punish and expel immigrants who were without proper papers. Twelve million would have become felons. The Senate favored a program that allowed immigrant workers to stay, while creating expensive hoops for them to jump through—also known as a “path to citizenship.”
President George W. Bush backed the more pro-immigration Senate bill, which put anti-immigration pundits in a froth. Patrick Buchanan accused the president of allowing an “invasion” and wrote in his book State of Emergency that President Bush would be remembered for a “dereliction of constitutional duty.”
Fox News host John Gibson waded into the debate by instructing white viewers to “Do your duty. Make more babies!” Gibson raised the specter of a Latino majority in the United States: “By far, the greatest number [of children under five] are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic.” His logic may have been faulty, but his projection of Fox’s racial anxiety was precise.
After he was criticized for racism, Gibson backed off, implying that children of any color were needed: “To put it bluntly, we need more babies . . . or put another way, a slogan for our times: ‘procreation not recreation.’”
Along with the Bushes, most corporate owners favored some form of immigration bill and were angry at House Republicans who opposed the Senate bill on “cultural” grounds. Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot grumbled that the anti-immigration right “isn’t even rational anymore.” His wing of the Republican party, more concerned with corporate labor force requirements than the national origin of that labor force, supported a bill that would broaden a work permit system, euphemistically called a “guest worker” program. As long as you are working, the system allows you to stay. If you are laid off or fired, you can be deported. Employers thus avoid paying for unemployment insurance for the workers they have discarded, and don’t have to face their political protests either.
Jeb Bush also emphasized “work-based” immigration and goes further, urging lawmakers to get rid of family reunification as a criterion for immigration. Family reunification makes it possible for immigrants to eventually bring close family members to the United States. But in keeping with their desire to import young adults and avoid paying for children or old people, Bush and his Immigration Wars coauthor, Clint Bolick, write: “Extended family members typically do not produce the economic benefits that work-based immigrants do, and they impose far greater costs. Many extended family immigrants are children, elderly people, or others who do not work[,] yet often consume … social services such as schooling and health care.” Instead, he urges that only the spouse and children of the immigrant should be permitted to follow them to the United States. Forget about your family, you’re here to work!
[Rest of the article at Socialist Forum, a publication of the Democratic Socialists of America.]