To President Donald Trump, unauthorized immigration is a grave threat that must be deterred and repelled, with force if need be. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, the most populous state in the union, and Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, the nation’s most populous city, see things rather differently. Both have announced new initiatives to provide unauthorized immigrants residing in their jurisdiction with a more comprehensive suite of medical benefits, with an eye toward eventually going further.
The contrast between the promise of a border wall, Trump’s chief priority at the moment, and of reliable, subsidized access to what might otherwise be exorbitantly expensive medical treatment is unmistakable. The first says, in no uncertain terms, “Keep out.” The second: “Whether you’ve settled here lawfully or otherwise, you are very welcome to stay.” But the promises that de Blasio and Newsom are making also reveal a key vulnerability for their political coalition, one that stems from the gap between the rhetoric of those who champion immigration and the messier realities that exist on the ground.
Newsom’s and de Blasio’s latest interventions can be understood only in the context of the accelerating nationalization of U.S. politics, as documented by Daniel Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. Policy domains that were once understood as almost exclusively local, such as public education, have long since become matters of national concern. Conversely, national issues increasingly resonate at the state and local level. Ambitious state and local politicians hoping to make a mark can’t just stick to, say, the intricacies of traffic management, not least because doing so would risk boring their constituents to death. Far better to weigh in on issues that are at the front of voters’ minds, and in the Trump era few issues are more salient than immigration.
Though the regulation of immigration has been deemed a federal responsibility since at least the 1880s, state and local governments do have some scope to affect immigration policy at the margins, and a number of jurisdictions have sought to broaden it. Whereas Congress has been deadlocked on immigration for years, partisan sorting is such that some states and localities have sizable majorities that favor either restrictionist or admissionist policies, and state and local political entrepreneurs have sought to capitalize on that fact.
They are, in the words of Heather Gerken, the dean of Yale Law School, “dissenting by deciding.” Instead of simply denouncing federal immigration policies they reject, they are exercising power in ways that reflect majority opinion in their own backyard, even when it is at odds with the national political settlement. Just as Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County made his name by championing restrictionist policies at the local level, in keeping with the sensibilities of his core constituency, Newsom and de Blasio have moved decisively in the opposite direction, embracing an admissionism that takes pride in defying, or rather resisting, federal immigration-enforcement efforts.
With their health-care initiatives, Newsom and de Blasio are staking out new ground. Since the 1980s, self-described sanctuary jurisdictions, which now include California and New York City, have pledged not to cooperate with federal immigration-enforcement efforts, or at least to do so only selectively. Though the sanctuary movement started out as a self-consciously radical Ronald Reagan–era protest, it entered the mainstream as a pragmatic public-safety measure that could appeal to centrist sensibilities. Later on, a number of states moved to grant unauthorized immigrants driver’s licenses. The Democratic Party consensus has moved considerably from 2007, when then-Senator Hillary Clinton felt obliged to oppose the idea, to 2015, when she expressed unqualified support for it. Sold to some as a public-safety measure and to others as a means to help the unauthorized achieve full economic participation in U.S. society, driver’s licenses have proved a crucial pathway to quasi-legalization. In the meritocratic spirit of rewarding “good” unauthorized immigrants—younger people who thrived in formal education and are on the path to remunerative employment, who could be framed as future pillars of the bourgeoisie—admissionist political entrepreneurs pressed for them to have in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. Notably, this too was a policy that cost taxpayers very little.
But now, having already endorsed the principle of noncooperation with immigration laws they consider unjust, left-of-center admissionists are going well beyond making arguments rooted in concerns about public safety, or that separate out supposedly more virtuous unauthorized immigrants, such as those President Barack Obama once praised for working “two or three jobs without taking a dime from the government,” from their less virtuous counterparts. Newsom and de Blasio are implicitly acknowledging the low average incomes of the unauthorized-immigrant population and their intention to subsidize them.
For now, the subsidies are likely to prove modest in size. Newsom, for example, proposes expanding Medi-Cal coverage to unauthorized immigrants age 19 to 26, building on the recent expansion of coverage to those age 18 and under. This age limit would exclude many of the poorest and certainly most of the sickest unauthorized-immigrant adults in California, thus holding down costs. Nevertheless, the direction of travel is clear: Newsom and de Blasio intend to treat poor unauthorized immigrants as generously as they treat all those who are lawfully present in the United States. And according to the Migration Policy Institute, an admissionist think tank, 60 percent of unauthorized immigrants in the United States live in households with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level and 53 percent are uninsured.
Moreover, these numbers don’t take into account the high cost of housing in many regions with large numbers of unauthorized immigrants, including California and New York City, which can further reduce disposable income. As Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui of The New York Times report, drawing on the work of the MIT economist David Autor, “Cities no longer offer low-skilled workers the economic advantages they once did,” a fact that has profound implications for the 72 percent of unauthorized-immigrant adults who have no more than a high-school education. In short, California, New York City, and other similar jurisdictions are facing a crisis of unauthorized-immigrant poverty that is likely to grow more pronounced in the years to come, not least because of the aging of the unauthorized-immigrant population.
One might hope that a more progressive immigration policy, including a sweeping amnesty, would itself address this looming challenge. In part, the poverty of the unauthorized-immigrant population can be attributed to the burdens of living in the United States without authorization. When the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) granted legal status to a large number of unauthorized immigrants in the 1980s, the average hourly wage of the newly legalized individuals increased by 15.1 percent after five years, a gain that could be attributed at least in part to acquiring legal status.
It is also true, however, that in the years since, U.S. workers without a postsecondary education have faced sustained wage pressure. Further, the IRCA amnesty preceded the wave of states granting unauthorized workers driver’s licenses and providing other resources to facilitate their economic participation. The gap between those with legal status and those without it has, in many admissionist jurisdictions, grown smaller in recent years, which implies that the wage gains from legalization might be smaller as well.
Newsom and de Blasio are not wrong to underscore that large numbers of unauthorized immigrants are poor enough to be in desperate need of subsidized medical care. The tricky thing is that this is a different immigration message than the one that has historically appealed most to centrists, namely that immigration is a free lunch and that all immigrants want is the opportunity to do backbreaking jobs for wages most native-born U.S. workers would find insultingly meager. They are reminding us that leading a dignified life in the United States, let alone in California or New York City, is expensive, and that workers with little in the way of formal education often struggle to get by without a helping hand from more affluent taxpayers.
By embracing the further inclusion of unauthorized immigrants in the safety net, Newsom and de Blasio are rejecting the libertarian mantra of “building a wall around the welfare state,” not to mention the Gang of Eight bill’s stringent limits on the ability of newly legalized immigrants to access benefits. But the conceit that poor unauthorized immigrants aren’t in need of “a dime from the government” has long been considered central to keeping tax-averse voters in the admissionist coalition. As recently as April 2018, a survey sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center found that U.S. voters are far more concerned about immigrants who “take benefits that should go to Americans first” than they are about those who “compete for jobs with hardworking Americans.”
Backing benefits for unauthorized immigrants undoubtedly plays well with Democratic primary voters in California and New York City. But swing voters might see things rather differently. Once the polarizing Donald Trump leaves the scene, the bracing honesty of Newsom and de Blasio could give restrictionism new life.