Class and Immigration

The Center for Public Humanities has the privilege of welcoming various speakers onto campus. The keynote lecturer at this year’s symposium was Edwidge Danticat, the highly respected poet, author, and speaker. Talking about immigration and refugees, she quoted Home, a beautiful poem by Warsan Shire, who wrote: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” Thinking about Ms. Danticat’s lecture, and the general difficulty of dialoguing with people on controversial issues, I think that examining how refugees and immigrants are situated within the class structure might help us to engage people who hold contrary views on immigration.

When the stakes are so high, it can be a trying exercise to understand other (strongly held) opinions on immigration. One convenient narrative supposes that anti-immigration is a euphemism for xenophobia and racism. More thoughtful commentators acknowledge that economic insecurity also plays a role. Indeed, economists have long found, unsurprisingly, that immigration increases labor competition and tends to reduce wages for similarly-skilled native workers.[1] [2] In the United States, then, the people most likely to feel the wage effects of low-skilled immigration are also least able to afford it.

Clearly, though, acknowledging people’s grievances leaves unanswered why such a rich country cannot provide decent jobs for everyone. One answer, of course, is that it chooses not to. We choose to rely on private labor markets to supply jobs through competition. Our country chooses not to provide good jobs for those who can’t find them, chooses to keep the minimum wage low, and chooses to gut unions with Right to Work laws. The result, of course, is that individuals claw each other for a scarce number of decent jobs. By undermining social solidarity and cohesion, our labor system creates the conditions for resentment.

This isn’t limited to labor markets—artificial scarcity has always been useful to elites to misdirect frustration and undermine class-based movements. Howard Zinn observes that during the Civil Rights era, local and state governments invented ingenious ways to deliver concessions in ways that pitted poor whites and blacks against each other for the same inadequate, scarce resources.[3] In Boston in the 1970s, when black children were being bused into poorly-funded white schools, anger at the quality of schools was redirected into anger at black students, who were seen as competition for the same lousy education all poor students were getting.

In a similar fashion, the economic anxiety prompted by immigration (and its racist and xenophobic expressions) results from artificial scarcity. In unfettered markets, people are forced to commodify their labor and compete for a scarce number of decent jobs. It’s only natural that such an arrangement breeds resentment. It can be difficult to see that the cause of your misfortune is not the low-paid immigrant, but the system that creates too few jobs for too many workers, keeping wages low. Tragically, that anxiety and uncertainty has historically been directed toward the most recent group of immigrants, whether Irish, Chinese, or Honduran. Even second and third-generation immigrants have often been harsh toward more recent newcomers.

In my view, then, a pro-immigration stance that condemns nativism (as it should) but ignores the class hierarchy from which it results misses the point. When we acknowledge the structures that pit poor and working-class people against each other for profit, we can approach anti-immigrant views more compassionately. Undoubtedly, engaging people who disagree will fail as often as it succeeds, but recognizing people’s grievances as genuine is a start at redirecting their anxiety toward the real source, and creating real social change.

[1] George Borjas and Joan Monras, “The Labor Market Consequences of Refugee Supply Shocks.” National Bureau of Economic Research, (2016).
[2] Simonetta Longhi et al., “A Meta-Analytic Assessment of the Effect of Immigration on Wages.” Journal of Economic Surveys, (2005).
[3] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (467).

Ben Cochran
Benjamin Cochran

Ben Cochran is a senior with majors in economics and politics. Originally from Ohio, he joined the Center for Public Humanities to explore the intersection of scholarship and service. He intends to work with low-income policy in state government.






Above image by D. Sinclair Terrasidius, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.


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