The kind of people who celebrate free trade tend to be the kind of people who have a taste for change, which makes them more favorably disposed towards the free movement of people across borders. Similarly, on the other side of the political fence, immigration skeptics are often motivated by a sense of nostalgia, which inclines them to oppose offshoring, automation, and other forces that threaten to change the look and feel of society.
In practice, though, offshoring enables large U.S. employers to substitute low-skill workers abroad for low-skill workers at home. This is in stark contrast to the first decades of the 20th century, when the rise of American industry was fueled in no small part by low-skill immigrant labor. Now, however, it’s possible to contract out the most labor-intensive parts of production to firms and workers based in countries where low-skill labor is cheap and labor standards are lax, or to adopt capital-intensive business models at home that use low-skill labor sparingly if at all. The result is that tradable-sector employment in the U.S. is increasingly skewed towards high-skill workers, who work in tandem with low-skill labor overseas. Meanwhile, low-skill workers in the U.S. typically find themselves employed by smaller, lower-productivity firms that pay lower wages, with business models that likely wouldn’t survive years of serious, sustained wage gains.
Inevitably, this changing economic landscape has influenced the politics of low-skill immigration. In Trading Barriers, the UCLA political scientist Margaret Peters finds that as barriers to trade have fallen, barriers to low-skill immigration have risen. While others have argued that restrictionism has gained ground because nativism is rising, or because the expansion of the welfare state has intensified concerns about the fiscal impact of low-skill immigration, Peters offers a novel and compelling explanation: Major corporations have lost their appetite for using their considerable resources to fight the restrictionist tide.
To be sure, in the age of “woke capital,” there are plenty of corporations that celebrate immigration-driven cultural change and diversity, and of course corporate America still lobbies aggressively for openness to high-skill immigration. Low-skill immigration, however, is an entirely different story. Though it remains essential to sustaining the low-skill workforce in the U.S., as rising educational attainment and falling birthrates would otherwise cause it to shrink over time, the fact that firms can simply import labor-intensive intermediate inputs rather than produce them in-house has made the availability of low-skill labor a less urgent, if not an entirely superfluous, concern.
And as corporate demand for low-skill labor has fallen, corporate lobbying for low-skill immigration has fallen off. This in turn has changed the character of immigration advocacy, moving it away from the priorities of low-wage employers, such as the creation and expansion of guest-worker programs, towards a greater emphasis on the rights of immigrants to reunite with their family members and, in intellectual circles, certainly, humanitarian calls for low-skill immigration as a vehicle for the uplift of the global poor. (Peters, for instance, concludes her book by offering a moral defense of open borders.) Mind you, economic self-interest still plays a role in the coalition for low-skill immigration: Affluent professionals, for example, greatly benefit from an abundance of low-skill immigrant labor, as it makes it cheaper for them to outsource household production, while they’re potentially disadvantaged by the arrival of high-skill immigrants capable of competing with them for high-wage, high-status jobs. But such arguments increasingly play second fiddle to more emotionally resonant appeals centered on the moral worthiness of immigrants themselves.