The Elite Immigration Assumptions Behind Reporting on Cantor

Most political obituaries for the majority leader will take it as a given that more immigration is good. That's because journalists stand to benefit.
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Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Whatever else they disagree about, almost all of the pundits and politicians who will comment on Eric Cantor’s defeat will share one bedrock conviction: Immigration liberalization is right and good—and those who oppose it are animated by unthinking and misguided prejudice. 

Watch for it over the next 12 to 24 hours. Sometimes the conviction will be articulated. More often, it will lurk in the background, expressing itself in turns of phrase: “hopes for immigration reform”; “the bipartisan Senate bill.”

Immigration is a tough issue to report dispassionately. The costs are loaded onto people who don’t carry a lot of weight in our society. The benefits are collected by some of the most influential interests in America, including of course the affluent and educated social classes from which journalists are mostly recruited. Because the costs of immigration are diffuse, it’s not easy to tell a personal story about immigration’s losers. But at least one category of winners are visible and sympathetic: the immigrants themselves.

Read this passage from Tuesday’s New York Times report on the immigration surge into Wichita, Kansas:

Armando Minjarez, clipboard in hand, walked through a north Wichita neighborhood of bungalows bearing the signs of Mexican domesticity: Virgin Mary statues on the lawns; children’s toys strewn about.

He had come to ask residents for suggestions about the next mural he and a group of activists planned to paint on a wall in the neighborhood. They had decided it should be about women, but what would residents want to see portrayed?

“Libertad,” said the first woman he met, at a lemon yellow house with red roses in the yard. She said that her daughters had gone to college here and succeeded, but that liberty and equality needed to be extended “to the people who have been living here for a long time without papers.”

“It’s very difficult for them,” she added.

Concerns on the other side go unmentioned, or are hinted at only very elliptically. From the same story:

Mr. Sosa said Mexicans are perhaps less concerned with planning or rules than many of their non-Hispanic neighbors are. He and Mr. Sosa said that both immigrants and Americans probably needed to give in and change a bit to build a tighter community.

Immigration has transformed the daily life of American professionals. Housecleaning and restaurant meals, gardening services and home healthcare: All are more affordable for the American affluent than they were before 1970.

It’s maybe relevant here that those of us who decide what is and isn’t fit to print ourselves benefit greatly from more open immigration. The pressure on unskilled wages—on the cost of housecleaning and restaurant meals, gardening services and home healthcare—redounds to our benefit. 

Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies explains the math of immigration economics: 

There is a standard way of calculating the benefit from immigration, also referred to the as the immigrant surplus, that goes to the existing population .… [T]he benefit is dependent on the size of the wage losses suffered by the existing population of workers. Or put a different way, the bigger the wage loss, the bigger the net benefit. Those who contend that immigration has no impact on the wages of immigrants are also arguing, sometimes without realizing it, that there is no economic benefit from immigration.

The loss to some workers—and especially low-wage workers—is more than balanced by the gains to upmarket Americans, such as the people who write the laws and report on elections:

The money that would have gone to workers as wages if there had been no immigration does not vanish into thin air. It is retained by owners of capital as higher profits or passed on to consumers in the form of lower prices. The fact that business owners lobby so hard to keep immigration levels high is an indication that much of the lost wages are likely retained by them. Also, workers who face little or no competition from immigrants will not suffer a wage loss. In fact, demand for their labor may increase and their incomes rise as a result. For example, if you are an attorney or a journalist at an English-language news outlet in the United States you face very little competition from immigrants. In fact, immigration may increase your wages as demand for your occupation rises. 

That’s us in the media he’s talking about. And in the reporting of this issue generally—and Eric Cantor’s defeat in particular—it shows.

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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