The Volokh Conspiracy

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Are Democrats an Anti-Immigrant Party Too?

Recent articles by Tyler Cowen and Farhad Manjoo highlight anti-immigrant effects of many Democrats' policies on zoning and other issues. The party is not quite as bad as the Republicans. But that's damning with faint praise.



In recent years, the Republican Party has increasingly become known for its hostility to immigration, both legal and illegal. The Democrats, by contrast, are generally seen as champions of immigrants. But recent articles by New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo and my George Mason University colleague economist Tyler Cowen suggest that reputation isn't deserved. They highlight the ways in which zoning and labor policies championed by Democrats have the effect of excluding immigrants from many of the nation's largest cities. Here's Manjoo:

To live in California at this time is to experience every day the cryptic phrase that George W. Bush once used to describe the invasion of Iraq: "Catastrophic success." The economy here is booming, but no one feels especially good about it. When the cost of living is taken into account, billionaire-brimming California ranks as the most poverty-stricken state, with a fifth of the population struggling to get by. Since 2010, migration out of California has surged….

And there is no end in sight to such crushing success. At every level of government, our representatives, nearly all of them Democrats, prove inadequate and unresponsive to the challenges at hand. Witness last week's embarrassment, when California lawmakers used a sketchy parliamentary maneuver to knife Senate Bill 50, an ambitious effort to undo restrictive local zoning rules and increase the supply of housing….

Reading opposition to SB 50 and other efforts at increasing density, I'm struck by an unsettling thought: What Republicans want to do with I.C.E. and border walls, wealthy progressive Democrats are doing with zoning and Nimbyism. Preserving "local character," maintaining "local control," keeping housing scarce and inaccessible — the goals of both sides are really the same: to keep people out.

"We're saying we welcome immigration, we welcome refugees, we welcome outsiders — but you've got to have a $2 million entrance fee to live here, otherwise you can use this part of a sidewalk for a tent," said Brian Hanlon, president of the pro-density group California Yimby. "That to me is not being very welcoming. It's not being very neighborly."

Cowen makes similar points:

State and local governments are making immigration policy all the time, mostly for the worse, and often Democrats are more restrictionist than Republicans…

Which leads me to what recently happened in California, which is controlled by Democrats. The state legislature last week shelved a bill known as SB 50, which would have partially deregulated building and led to much denser construction. It was an "anti-NIMBY" bill that would have lowered rents, or at least stopped them from rising so rapidly.  In essence, SB 50 was a pro-immigration bill. By turning it down, California lawmakers essentially engaged in restrictionist immigration policy, whether or not that was their intent….

There are striking parallels between the philosophies of Trump and NIMBY urbanists. Trump asserts that America is "full" and so wants to restrict the flow of immigrants. The urbanists, who tend to be Democratic and highly educated, assert that their cities are too crowded and so want to restrict the supply of housing. The cultural valence of the two views is quite different, but the practical implications have a lot in common — namely, a harder set of conditions for potential low-skilled migrants to the U.S.

As Cowen suggests, zoning and immigration restrictions both reflect zero-sum thinking, which often leads to harmful and unjust policies on both left and right. Advocates of both policies assume that we must exclude some people from opportunity in order to secure it for others. In reality, both cutting back on zoning and reducing immigration restrictions would create vast new wealth that can benefit not only migrants themselves, but the rest of the country.

Cowen also highlights the anti-immigrant impact of high minimum wage policies favored by many Democrats:

The minimum wage is another tool of anti-immigration policy, at least for less skilled immigrants. Say a city sets a minimum wage of $15 an hour. That means a potential migrant whose work is worth only $12 an hour won't be able to get a legal job in that city. That will deter migration, both legal and illegal. Furthermore, a worker in, say, Honduras may not find it possible to improve his or her skills to be worth $15 an hour, at least not without arriving in the U.S.

So higher minimum wages are also a restrictionist immigration policy, at least for the poorest class of migrants. This is one of those truths that is inconvenient for people at both ends of the political spectrum. Many Republicans want tighter immigration, but they are not so crazy about higher minimum wages. Many Democrats face this dilemma in reverse.

Research by economists confirms the prediction that high minimum wages deter immigrants from settling in jurisdictions that adopt them.

The restrictive NIMBY zoning policies favored by many Democrats don't just shut out many immigrants. They also close off housing and job opportunities to millions of native-born Americans, both the minority poor and working-class whites. While Republicans' zoning policies are far from perfect, Cowen is right to point out that conservative "red" jurisdictions are, on average, significantly better than liberal "blue" ones on this issue.

This is not just a matter of Democrats' failing to affirmatively help immigrants and the poor as much as they could. It is a case of their using the coercive power of government to actively  impede them. Zoning restrictions prevent willing developers from building housing for these people, willing landowners from renting to them, and willing employers from hiring them. The effect is similar to that which would happen if state or local governments passed laws directly restricting the number of international and domestic migrants allowed to live and work in a given area. It is a tragic irony that the party that claims to champion the interests of immigrants, minorities, and the poor also adopts policies that massively harm these very same groups.

Despite the parallels noted by Cowen and Manjoo, the Democrats' restrictionist policies are, on the whole, less awful than those of the Republicans. One key difference is that restrictive zoning merely bars migrants from particular areas, not the entire country. By contrast, Republicans' efforts to cut legal migration and deport undocumented migrants exclude people from living anywhere in the US, thereby in many cases condemning them to lifelong poverty and oppression. There is also no Democratic analogue to the cruelty of some of the more extreme GOP policies, such as Trump's family separation order (which continues to separate thousands of children from their parents even many months after its official end) and the 2018 Justice Department ruling denying refugee status to escaped slave laborers on the grounds that their forced labor amounts to providing "material support" for terrorists.

It is also important to recognize that Democrats are far from monolithic on zoning. Over the last few years, many on the left have begun to reconsider the policy, and point out the ways in which it harms the very groups progressives seek to help. In recent months, several liberal Democratic jurisdictions have enacted significant reforms loosening zoning restrictions, most notably the city of Minneapolis. Cowen and Manjoo justifiably point to the recent defeat of California Senate Bill 50—a bill that would have lifted restrictions on new construction in much of the state –  as an indictment of the Democrats. But SB 50 itself was a liberal Democratic initiative, sponsored by progressive state Sen. Scott Wiener. There is at least an active debate over zoning on the left, and Democratic opposition to exclusionary policies is gradually growing. Many liberals have come to recognize that exclusionary zoning is at odds with their principles.

At the state and local level,  many of the same Democratic jurisdictions that often exclude immigrants with their zoning and minimum wage policies also protect them by adopting "sanctuary city" restrictions on cooperation with federal deportation efforts. They deserve praise for the latter, as well as criticism for the former.

Meanwhile, the GOP is actually moving in the wrong direction on immigration, becoming more hostile to immigration rather than less so. Too many on the right simply ignore the contradictions between restrictionist policies and their professed commitment to liberty, free markets, and color-blindness.

But Democrats should not pat themselves on the back for being somewhat less lawful than Trump-era Republicans on these issues. A truly progressive party should have higher aspirations. When it comes to expanding opportunities for both domestic and international migration, both parties have a great deal of room for improvement.