Anti-immigration activists do have one point. It is simply not possible for the US to accommodate everyone who wants to move here. I have seen the estimate, for instance, that if all immigration barriers with Haiti were removed, as much as 70-90% of the population would move here. But at the same time it seems harsh to shut out people in need. So what do you do?
I recall an column by David Neiwert commenting that while should take a firm stand against nativist views treating immigrants as a plague and a scapegoat, still, admitting everyone is not the answer, so what is the liberal answer. Well, to me the liberal answer is straightforward enough. Improve conditions in Mexico to the point that people from Mexico lose interest in moving here. But what do we do in the meantime? And if you want to make the liberal argument for restricting immigration, what do you say?
So if any of you nativists are out there wondering how to convince a liberal (I know you aren't), let me give some pointers on what not to say. Do not tell pro-immigrant people that they are part of a conspiracy by a sinister global elite to destroy Western Civilization by contaminating it with Third World people. This tends to give offense. Do not describe immigrants as a disease, a pollution, a contaminant, criminals destroying our society, etc. Do not, in other words, make comments to the effect that immigrants (legal or illegal) are un-people and have no place within the circle of people who morally "matter." To a liberal, that is simply not acceptable. Do not blame all our social ills on immigrants. That is scapegoating. That is also unacceptable. Moving into more realistic territory, don't argue that illegal immigrants are criminals and should apply for admission through legal channels, even if it takes decades. The distinction between "wait for decades to be processed" and "don't come here at all" is one mostly without a difference. Don't blame our loss of good-paying blue collar jobs on immigration. A whole lot of those jobs were automated away or went overseas. And even for the ones that don't automate or go overseas, I don't see a lot of anti-immigration activists clamoring for jobs picking vegetables or working in a meat packing house. Don't complain that a multi-ethnic society just can't work. That sounds a lot like concern trolling. Besides, our country has done a whole lot better at making multi-ethnic society work than anyone ever thought possible.
Finally, I understand that the nativist wing of conservatism and the libertarian wing are not the same (with a few exceptions like Ron Paul). But really what you are seeing at work here is the law of supply and demand. It applies to labor just the same as to anything else. And yes, I agree, that is troubling. In college economics, our international trade class focused on the theory that over the (very) long run, wages would tend to equalize worldwide. It seemed mostly abstract at the time, but what we are seeing now is the early phase of just that. A scary thought in a high wage country! But at the same time, as my economics textbook put it, the invisible hand fights back. I am not one who believes that the minute anyone introduces any economic regulation whatever we have taken the first step on a slippery slope that leads all the way to the gulag. But I do believe that when the regulation takes the form of banning a product that people want (cheap labor for employers, better jobs for immigrants), distortions enter the system, people resort to elaborate lengths to evade the ban, and ever more repressive measures are needed to enforce it. One hears a lot about this these days with the War on Drugs. Here is an account of the War on Cloth Buttons and War on Calico in 17th Century France. It works with labor, too.
Nonetheless, the argument can be made convincingly if you consider not only the effect on the US, but on the effect on the country supplying the immigrants. Consider Marine LePen. (Can't be bothered to find the link. Sorry). When confronted with a high-performing African immigrant professional asking what Ms. LePen had to say to her, Marine did not tell her that she was destroying France or that she was a disease or cancer in the fabric of society. (Mixed metaphor intended). She said that the immigrant was, indeed, contributing productively to French society, but that she was depriving her home country of a valuable member.
Certainly this article by Matt Yglesias is revealing in looking at the unusual case if Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is, for the most part, a Third World country, but it is also a US possession and all Puerto Ricans are US citizens. That means there are no barriers to immigration. What is the result? No doubt Puerto Rican immigration puts some burden on the US. But the one really being harmed by it is Puerto Rico. Mass emigration makes for a declining population, which, in turn, causes a shrinking tax base and makes the per capita government debt burden ever greater. Which leads to higher taxes, less services, and more emigration. Paul Krugman has noted a similar phenomenon in Europe. And within the US, when a local area sees its economic base removed, the most energetic and dynamic portion of the population leave, and the remaining portion spirals ever further and further downward. In Haiti as much as 70 to 90% of the population would move to the US given the opportunity. For the US, the burden would be tough but manageable. For Haiti, it would mean complete societal collapse.
All of which means that any liberal attempt at cutting back immigration will have to be transnational. Protect our country from alien scum just won't cut it. Improve the quality of life in other countries to make staying home more attractive and convince the most dynamic and mobile people that their country needs them will have more appeal. Of course, it will also be slow-moving.