Conservative writer David Frum has stirred a hornet’s nest on the issue of immigration, and since that’s a topic that sharply divides Americans, I think it is worthwhile to dive in and provide local perspective.
Frum’s article in the April issue of The Atlantic – “How Much Immigration is Too Much?” – is not about The Wall. That’s because he rightly points out a barrier along the Mexican border will not change the essence of America’s immigration system. Almost all new immigrants arrive legally, or they come legally as tourists or students and then remain illegally, or they come to border crossings as asylum seekers. A wall stops none of that and it certainly has little direct effect on Hawaii’s immigrant situation.
How does Hawaii feel about immigrants? We asked that question in our BOSS Survey of business leaders and our 808 Poll of the general public: 67 percent of business leaders and 76 percent of the general public say immigrants overall help the local economy.
Now those numbers should be a head scratcher because business owners and managers usually benefit most from immigrants either as cheap labor or as well-educated workers who fill jobs that the local labor force cannot at the wages business is willing to pay. Meanwhile, ordinary people and workers often have to compete with immigrants for jobs, promotions and housing. Yet those polls show more support from ordinary people than business leaders in Hawaii. Why?
Frum suggests President Donald Trump is the answer. Support nationally for immigration has grown among Trump’s detractors, and opposition has hardened among Trump’s supporters. Earlier polling by Hawaii Business Magazine shows Trump is much more popular among business leaders than among the general public, which helps explain the otherwise counterintuitive local poll numbers on support for immigrants.
Trump has skewed the traditional Democratic and Republican positions on immigration. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were both big advocates of immigration. Back in 2015, when Trump was largely considered a joke candidate, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders expressed what had once been a common Democratic concern with immigration: “What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. … I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country.”
Frum takes up that no-open borders cause by citing numbers to show the benefits of legal and illegal immigration to the overall economy are small and that most benefits flow to the wealthy. Instead of thinking: “Immigrants take jobs that Americans won’t do,” think “We don’t need to increase the wages on low-skill, miserable jobs to draw in Americans because immigrants will do the jobs for dirt.” Think yardwork, drywall and other nonunion construction, meatpacking plants, farm labor, hotel housekeeping and more.
Hawaii Business Magazine published a 20-page CHANGE report in February on the plight of ordinary working families in Hawaii. Like the working class nationwide, their inflation-adjusted income has fallen drastically over the past three decades.
Frum and many others say the immigration boom of the past three decades is one of the main factors in their depressed incomes. Frum says it is no coincidence that the decades following World War II were both boom times for the working and middle classes and a period of historically low immigration in America.
There’s so much of Frum’s words that I don’t have space for so I recommend reading his article. It’s available in print, online and as a recording. Then dive into the reaction stories and Frum’s rebuttal. It’s a worthwhile debate on one of the most important issues of our time.