A hundred years ago, as the United States began to wind down a period of mass immigration that began in the late-19th century, the push for limiting immigration came from the political left. The flood of immigrant workers into the United States led to exploitative and even deadly conditions for laborers as the nation culminated its industrial revolution. Labor unions and other progressives of the era saw limits on immigration as a necessary condition for improving the lot of American workers.
Today, the American left is openly in support of unchecked immigration, even though the surge of immigration over the past half century has been a prime factor contributing to the long-term stagnation of wages for American workers. The same has been true in Europe, but unlike the United States, there has been the emergence of a left wing effort to slow down immigration to the Continent.
The phenomenon of left wing opposition to mass immigration in Europe is reported in a lengthy article in venerable far-left American magazine, The Nation. Writer David Adler reports on the emergence of left wing “populism,” rooted in the belief that Europe’s endless flows of migrants are undermining Europe’s own working classes and destabilizing the social safety nets that the left has fought to establish across Europe.
Germany’s “Aufstehen (‘Rise Up’), [is]a political movement combining left-wing economic policy with exclusionary social protections,” reports Adler. According to a recent poll, about a third of German voters said they could see themselves supporting the immigration agenda proposed by the Aufstehen movement.
Opposition to mass immigration on the political left actually predates the left wing push for more restrictive immigration to the United States in the early 20th century. None other than Karl Marx took note of the negative effects of mass immigration on the working classes. In 1870, discussing large scale Irish immigration to England, Marx noted, “Ireland constantly sends her own surplus to the English labor market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.”
Perhaps Marx’s most notable contemporary disciple in the United States, Senator Bernie Sander (I-Vt.), similarly took note of this phenomenon, until fairly recently. In 2007, the self-declared Democratic Socialist opposed legislation that would have allowed more foreign guest workers into the country. “Instead of paying American workers higher wages and better benefits if there are labor shortages, their solution is to simply bring low-wage workers in from abroad,” Sanders declared. “If these same companies raised wages and provided decent benefits for their workers instead of lowering wages and benefits, I think they would find more than enough Americans flocking to those jobs.”
Then he sold out.
Neither the insidious extremes on the left or right should dominate the debate about immigration policy. In the United States and Europe, demands for reasonable limits on immigration emanate from the mainstream of those societies. But the leadership vacuums that have been left by establishment politicians on both sides of the Atlantic will not go unfilled. The political elite continue to ignore this reality at their own peril – and ours.