Immigration, Employment and Apologies to Will Truman

Yesterday, Will wrote a thoughtful piece on the nature of immigration, foreign workers and the U.S. visa system. In this post, Will makes the observation:

Now, with my last two paragraphs, here is where some people respond, “but why should we consider their fate more important than the fate of those we want to bring over?” The short answer is, quite frankly, because they’re Americans. Just as I would prefer my fellow citizens look after me before looking after a foreign national in some other country, I would just assume do the same. You can call this nativist, if you like. You can call it xenophobic. You can call it bigoted. I don’t wish people harm so much as I place the welfare of some over the welfare of others. To me, expecting otherwise would be to wonder why I value the fate of my adopted cousin over the fate of some stranger. If it’s a bigotry, it’s a bigotry I can live with. To be honest, whether we admit it or not, it’s sewn in to our national discourse with liberals and conservatives alike.

Though I don’t know if he was thinking of me, Will and I have had this dance before (and, so, I didn’t think it necessary to jump into that thread). I do think there’s an element of xenophobia to this position, and it certainly strikes me as a type of bigotry.

What is interesting is that a similar debate is going on in Canada. The government is set to overhaul the Temporary Foreign Worker Program after some issues with the use of foreign workers at companies like HD Mining and RBC. I had been meaning to write about this for a few weeks, so a big thanks to Will for finally getting my fingers to the keyboard. The results can be found at the Commons. Basically, I argue, by assigning more worth to one group of people based on nothing more than citizenship, you’re dabbling in something that is, at least, really close to bigotry.

Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. Diabolus Advocati hat on:

    Maybe this isn’t as unwarranted or worth being called bigotry when companies are actively avoiding hiring Americans and are committing advertising fraud to justify their H1-B visa expansion advocacy.

    On the one hand, two wrongs don’t make a right. On the other hand, if there is fraud going on in one sense then it tends to justify the reasons American workers would be skeptical of the H1-B process and skeptical that there is legitimate competition in the marketplace.

    • This is quite fair. In the RBC example, I saw no problem with RBC hiring foreign workers, but I’m not ok with them doing an end-run around the law.

  2. Another turn around question:

    Why should immigrations laws benefit corporations instead of ordinary citizens? In this case it does seem like tech companies want more HB-1 Visas instead because it allows them to pay less.

    I’m all for increasing the number of amnesty slots, fiancee slots, or general immigration but HB-1 where the Visa is tied to a specific employer benefits corporations too much.

    • Move tech support, manufacturing, and low-level coding to the Third World.

      For everything else, there’s H1-B Visa.

    • I won’t comment specifically on American visas, though I’ll agree that the working permissions that tie someone to a specific employer are pretty crappy.

      But there’s a bit of question begging in your middle paragraph. Why is it a question of immigration laws benefiting corporations or ordingary citizens? Pitting citizens against non-citizens is exactly what I’m looking at. I couldn’t give a fig about corporations.

      • You might not give a fig about corporations but they are certainly players in the question.

        Corporations like HB-1 Visa’s specifically because they are tied to employment and this makes it less likely (in theory anyway) that a holder of the Visa is going to argue for a raise forcefully. HB-1 Visa’s create disparate bargaining power in situations where employees normally have good bargaining power because of their skills. To me this is creating the highly educated version of Jay Gould’s observation that he could “put half of the working class against the other half of the working class.”

        So if you want to create a system that does not put citizens against non-citizens, you need to get rid of the HB-1 Visa and also have more reciprocity. Make it easier for Americans to get work Visa’s for Europe or Canada or whenever. I think it would be interesting to work and live in Canada or England for a while. As far as I can tell, this is very hard or tricky for me as an American.

        Also when I was in Japan people from countries other than the United States were able to get some kind of Visa that allowed them to do part-time work. I think it was called a “working-holiday visa”. This was not an option for Americans, we needed to work full time to get our visas.

        HB-1 Visas like the type championed by the tech industry at least create the perception that US Companies are trying to pay less.

        • Again, I have no particular insight into the workings of the American system, but I think what I wrote in the linked piece relates.

          Canada is working on it Temporary Foreign Worker Program – I’m guessing this is similar enough to HB-1 visas for our purposes. In the piece, I note that the TFWP is an inherently flawed system. I’m for scrapping it and just making it a damned lot easier for people to come here and work and (if they so wish) get citizenship. So, no, corporations don’t enter into my calculus (though corporations tend to like the TFWP).

          So maybe we’re in agreement? I’m not really sure. Certainly, I’m not looking to set up something that specifically helps corporations.

          Reciprocity would be nice but (a) you don’t need reciprocity to get some gains from trade (and I’m not just speaking in the economic sense); and (b) if other countries are screwing over foreign workers that doesn’t mean I think our country should. I would hope my country could be a leader in this, even if we don’t get many followers.

  3. Yeah, you were one of the people I had in mind when I wrote that. But not the only. I was mostly interested in addressing an argument that I was anticipating seeing.

    It’s obviously an issue on which we disagree and are unlikely to agree, but I understand where you’re coming from at least on an ideological level (I might pick your brain on some of the logistical ramifications, though). There is a sense of favoring these people over these people due to something other than the content of their character. I just consider it mostly baked into the world and the way people are and I think sometimes (not meant as a swipe at you*) it’s sometimes easy for people to take the higher-minded approach when it’s not their livelihood that is adversely impacted.

    I don’t mind so much if the corporations benefit, as NewDealer does, so long as we benefit. I think we’re more likely to benefit from those who bring education (or at least the capacity for higher education) and/or skills with them. I am sympathetic to the complaints I hear about difficulty getting spouses over here. I am also sympathetic to the Jim Manzi arguments that our system focuses too much on family reunification and not enough on economic considerations.

    * – Nor anyone on The League. As my post indicates, it’s something I struggle with, and it may not apply to you at all, for all. And Jaybird’s livelihood stands to be negatively impacted by immigration, and he’s still in favor of open borders and not all that concerned about it.

    • My life has already been improved a thousandfold by immigration. What’s a few thousand dollars per year?

    • The logistics issue is something we’ll likely agree upon, for the most part. I’m an “open borders” sort of guy, but not literally opening the borders. I’m all for weeding out serial killers and war criminals. I also understand the need for some administration work to keep government functioning properly.

      My preference would be to start opening things up as much as possible, given our bureaucratic infrastructure (and maybe trying to expand that infrastructure a bit). It won’t be perfect, but it’ll help get us closer to opening the borders. That’s all I really want to do, is get close to it.

      • I suspect that most psychopaths would harm fewer people in a more sophisticated society.
        Less need for bloodshed.

        • I know I always base public policy on harming fewer people…

          …on second thought, I think most politicians would be greatly better at their jobs if thought of things in terms of this.

  4. Disclaimer: Like Jaybird, I’m a crazy open-borders guy (or at the very least, my idea of “legitimate barriers to immigration” is pretty dagum low).

    That said, it’s inarguable that immigrants come in with either a net social advantage or a net social disadvantage. I don’t particularly buy the estimations I’ve seen regarding net costs of immigration, but it’s fair to say that if they come in early enough, it’s one thing, and if they come in a little bit later, it might be a detriment to their home country, and if they come in at yet another point, well, they get the benefits of the social safety net without having contributed to it. They’re basically free riders.

    Now, I’m also one of those crazy dudes that thinks that putting something in the commons means everybody gets access to it whether they contribute to it or not, but purely from an economic reasoning, I can see how someone could regard this as a legitimate factor in immigration policy.

    So the, “Hey, I put the Americans on the top of my ‘help list’ because we’re all in this together by established common law bonding” isn’t quite xenophobic or bigoted (although xenophobes could certainly use this argument as cover).

    • It strikes me as a variant of what bugs me about Home Owners Associations. “Only the following kinds of people can move into this neighborhood.”

      You may have jurisdiction over your own house. Sure. You don’t have jurisdiction over who I sell mine to.

      • The HOA would retort “then why did you buy a house in a community that was designed to allow the HOA to control who lived in the neighborhood by controlling who you sold your house to? Caveat Emptor!”

    • Pat, I’ll accept this argument regarding social services, but I don’t buy it in terms of employment. You can say that government spending belongs to the citizens, but that doesn’t get you to the idea that a job at HD Mining (for example) belongs to Canadians. In such a case, I think there’s something a little uglier happening.

      • … umm… what parts of government spending belong to the citizens?
        Because if you’re barring people from the courts, and from minimum wage legislation enforcement, that sounds an awful lot like slavery…
        (not saying that’s not what we have down here, mind).

        • “government spending belongs to the citizens” was a pretty bad way to phrase it. I’m just agreeing with Pat that there is a reasonable argument that in order to benefit from the social safety net, you must have contributed to it (or your parents had, or your grandparents, etc). It’s not an argument I’ll adopt, and I think it eventually breaks down, but I’m willing to accept it as something other than xenophobic or bigoted.

      • This sounds remarkably like “All palestinians ought to have a right to work in Israel”
        … which puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it?

        • Yes it does sound like that. It sounds exactly like that.

          I know that a nation at war (or at “war”, whichever each reader prefers) will have some extra security measures they may need to take, but other than that, I don’t think it does put a particularly different spin on things. I mean, sure, it will for other people, but not for me.

          • I think such ideas set bad precedents. If you vote in one area, but work in another, you have given up your right to influence your working conditions, etc etc.

            … just a thought.

          • Sure, that’s true, but I’m ok with people choosing to work in a country where they don’t have the franchise (as long as they’re also able to choose to leave that country).

            Of course, if people choose to move to Canada to work and want to be full-voting citizens, I’m good with that, too.

  5. Can we make a deal? I won’t reflexively call people who hold Will’s position xenophobic if others won’t call me unpatriotic for holding the converse. Is that fair?

    As he often does, Will presents a challenge for me here. A few years back, I might have been of the mindset that the position he articulates is inherently xenophobic. But one thing I’ve come to learn about Will is how thoughtful, deliberate, and considerate of the implications of his positions he is. I think if Will had a sense that his position was xenophobic, he would have examined this. And if he found it to be such, he likely would have challenged it. That he hasn’t told me he has likely thoroughly vetted at least his personal view on the issue and not identified any xenophobia, hidden or otherwise.

    Which doesn’t mean it might not still be there. But it is a check mark in the “It’s possible to hold this opinion without it representing xenophobia” column.

    That Will is a real dick.

    • No dice. (Though I don’t care if people call me unpatriotic.)

      I’ve laid out – in multiple posts – why I see the argument in favour of discriminating against foreign workers and favouring Canadian/American workers smacks of xenophobia and/or bigotry. You’re welcome to disagree with my assessment.

      I mean, come on, Will even admits that it might be a type of bigotry, but he’s comfortable with that – since it’s so woven into our cultural and political fabric. If he – who holds the position – acknowledges that it might be xenophobic, how is it wrong for me – who holds the opposite position on foreign employees – to argue that it is?

      I’m not, as some might think, calling Will a bigot. I like Will. In my critique, I noted that his post is quite thoughtful. I think Will is, generally, quite thoughtful. I’m pretty darned sure that he’s not, at his core, a bigot.

      I do think that “we” have a massive xenophobic streak in our society. I think this comes out when we start talking about immigration, refugees, social assistance, patriotism and foreign policy (remember that thread on the Boston bombers family receiving social assistance? that’s a good place to start). I think, like Will, that this is deeply sewn into our cultural fabric. Unlike Will, I want to get it out (not that Will wants to have xenophobic policies, but we both see a particular trait, I think it’s xenophobic, he does not. I want to get rid of it, he’s ok with it).

      Will and I disagree, and I think from his comment, it demonstrates that we can disagree and still have a conversation.

      The post I wrote at the Commons was one I was planning to write for a while (and similar to one other I wrote recently – which had been spurred by a Linky Friday post). I linked it to Will’s because it would seem a little odd not to (as Will noted, he had thought of our past discourse), and because I wanted to show some love because it was a good post.

      So, no, I won’t budge on my stance on whether or not the stated opinion is xenophobic. But I will re-iterate that I am passing judgement on the opinion, not the opinion-holder.

      • A few thoughts…

        I tend to passively accept labels. I accepted the “conservative” label once because enough people (on the right and left) told me that’s what I was. I abandoned it (on favor of “centre right” )because enough people told me I wasn’t. If I’d felt strongly either way, I might have objected, but I consider it a matter of perspective.

        Whether my views qualify as xenophobic or not strike me as similar in that it’s mostly a matter of perspective. I don’t feel strongly that I can say that it isn’t, though I do feel, after much contemplation, that if it is, then I accept the label. I also think that something is lost when the term is used to define such common perspectives, but that’s also a matter of perspective. I’m more interested in arguments about why my belief is right or wrong, rather than whether it does or does not qualify under a certain label.

        I would put “patriotism” in the same bucket. My generally pro-immigration sentiments (not as much on display at The League, because they’re redundant and so I focus on my hesitations and concerns) have garnered me labels of things much more smeary than “unpatriotic.” And while I might object to “traitorous” or “treasonous”, I wouldn’t argue much on the “unpatriotic” because, well, if that’s unpatriotic, then maybe I am but then if that’s the case then unpatriotic covers a wide enough area that maybe I am more uncomfortable being patriotic than unpatriotic. If that’s how they want to see it.

        And I view xenophobia in a similar light. If, to avoid being considered xenophobic, I would need to agree with things I can’t bring myself to agree with, then I will accept the label to some extent. Though I would still dispute any implication that I am “almost like the KKK” or seriously being likened to a hate group (which Jonathan isn’t doing).

        Along those lines, I do want to state something for the record: if anyone is concerned about a rift forming between two valuable League contributors, I can’t speak for Jonathan but I am personally not feeling it and I am not feeling it from him. I would consider it a disagreement of values and terms, rather than a case of being attacked on any personal level.

        And on a last note, I actually do to some extent agree with Jonathan on the ideal of citizenship mattering less or not mattering. But I think a lot needs to change in world dynamics before I can really get on board with that. It’s not unlike a conversation I had with Kazzy recently about colorblindness. I may consider colorblindness an ideal in the larger scheme of things, or at a distant point, but I consider it a mistake to unilaterally assume it in the here and now. I’d put a disregard for national borders and citizenship in that same bucket. It is my hope that someday in the future, we’re all first-world nations and so free movement between nations is a lot more like free movement within the states of the US.

        • “Along those lines, I do want to state something for the record: if anyone is concerned about a rift forming between two valuable League contributors, I can’t speak for Jonathan but I am personally not feeling it and I am not feeling it from him. I would consider it a disagreement of values and terms, rather than a case of being attacked on any personal level.”

          In fact, you certainly can speak for me on this matter. 100% agreed.

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