Ideaspace Interview No. 7

Mark Krikorian, a leader in the immigration reduction movement, speaks to Ideaspace on a conservative approach to labor shortages, the realignment of the GOP as a pro-worker party, and a look ahead at the next two election cycles

Views expressed by any party interviewed by Ideaspace are those of the interviewee and are not necessarily shared by Ideaspace.

As the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) — a research organization dedicated to immigration reduction — Mark Krikorian is a leader in conservative thinking on U.S. immigration poilcy. Under his leadership, CIS played a pivotal role in defeating both the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 and the DREAM Act of 2011, and the organization served as a guiding force on immigration policy for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. We first explored his views in Ideaspace Interview No. 1 posted September 28, 2020.

In the ensuing years, the calculus on U.S. immigration policy has changed dramatically, thanks in large part to labor shortages that have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and the Great Resignation. According to one report, as a result of COVID-related immigration restrictions, there are 2 million fewer working-age immigrants in the U.S. today than before the start of the pandemic. 

The growing labor shortage crisis has created a pro-immigration space in the Republican Party, where business-minded office-holders like Rep. John Curtis of Utah and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin have both put forth plans that would increase the immigrant workforce

Despite this growing consensus on addressing U.S. labor shortages with additions to our immigrant workforce, Krikorian remains steadfast in his position on reducing legal immigration. To gain insight on Krikorian’s current thinking — and the broader conservative view on labor shortages and how to address them — we spoke to the CIS leader. With a free-market argument calling on employers to address labor shortages by raising wages for native-born workers, Krikorian also shows how the connection between labor and immigration is informing the Republican Party’s realignment as a pro-worker party, and hints at why immigration hawks may be moving away from Trump.  

Ideaspace: In recent years, there have been myriad reports of serious labor shortages in the United States — shortages that U.S. employers say can be addressed with immigration. What is the immigration reduction movement’s answer to these labor shortages?

Mark Krikorian: There’s no such thing [as a labor shortage] in a market economy. There’s always going to be unfilled jobs by definition in any market economy. Frankly, if I put a want ad out, and said I wanted a PhD number cruncher and I was willing to pay $8 an hour, would I get anybody? No. But it would be an unfilled job, right? What happens in a market economy is employers, in offering jobs that don’t receive responses, employers will adapt and change the offer.

Ideaspace: So, if employers understood that they were not going to get their cheap labor from overseas….

Krikorian: They’d be doing something else.

Ideaspace: They would raise the money or they would offer other services.

Krikorian: There’s all different kinds of things. They might raise the wage. They might increase the benefit. They might change their recruitment practices. They might change the nature of the work so they only need five people instead of the 10 they’re looking for. There are any number of things, any number of adjustments that would happen in our market economy and do all the time.

Ideaspace: So your charge is that an immigrant workforce is throwing a monkey wrench into the labor market?

Krikorian: Well it’s influencing the labor market, to put it in a neutral way. It’s changing the kinds of jobs that Americans do. For instance, the classic example has always been office cleaners in Los Angeles. There was a big study in the late ’70s, early ’80s, of office cleaners in executive offices — law firms and stuff like that. Everybody who had that job until the late ’70s was Black American, often middle aged. It was a full-time job with benefits. It was a middle-class, maybe lower-middle-class, but a middle-class job. It was also unionized. So, Mexicans and Central Americans started coming in, in a big way, and completely flushed all Black Americans out of that work. It became non-union, paid less, and the nature of the workforce was completely transformed.

Immigration is what made that possible. Was it good, was it bad? I don’t know. I think it’s probably bad. It certainly was bad for those people. But there’s no doubt that it happened. So yes, the availability of immigrant labor by definition changes the nature of the labor market.

Ideaspace: If native-born workers are avoiding jobs because of insufficient pay or benefits, they’d still be reflected in the unemployment rate, and the unemployment rate is historically low.

Krikorian: There’s no question the unemployment rate is low. The unemployment rate only reflects people who are actively looking for work. But the fact is there are 50-plus million working-age people in the United States who aren’t working and the rate of labor force participation has been declining steadily for years. And so what that tells us is that there is a social problem to address that, men especially, are dropping out of the labor market. Immigration doesn’t fix that, because the people who have dropped out of the labor market are still here. They don’t go away. Immigration’s a bandaid at best.

In fact, it’s worse than a bandaid because it enables us to ignore whatever social problems are creating this decline in work. And in fact, if we simply got the labor force participation rate back to where it was in 2000, there wouldn’t be a labor shortage, at least in looking at the numbers that we have now. So in other words, the issue is, immigration only solves things in the immediate instance for a business that is having trouble finding staff and doesn’t want to pay more or do the other things it would have to do to recruit workers. 

Ideaspace: What are these social problems that you speak of?

Krikorian: Men in particular seem to be less likely to be working, less skilled men in particular. Work doesn’t pay particularly well, so they’re not working. They’re sitting at home and playing video games and watching pornography. And this is a problem across races and across regions. This is a broad social problem. And I don’t have a path solution for you. This is not strictly an immigration issue, although immigration almost certainly has contributed to it. But presenting immigration as a purported solution is actually worse than useless because not only does it not fix anything, it almost certainly makes the problem of people dropping out from work worse than it would be otherwise. Because those people on the margin who may or may not engage the labor market are going to be more likely to drop out of the labor market if jobs become less attractive because of the loosening of the labor market from immigration. 

In other words, a tight labor market is the best social policy, a loose labor market exacerbates social problems that are not entirely or even mainly driven by immigration. In other words, people dropping out of work, dropping out of the labor market, is partly promoted by immigration, but even if immigration had no role in this retreat from work, continuing immigration eliminates any incentive we have as a society, as a government to address what the issues are. My point is, why should anybody bother breaking a sweat trying to identify and address whatever the problem is if they don’t have to?

Ideaspace: Much has been made of immigration being restricted under the Trump administration, and COVID restricted immigration even more regardless of who was in the White House. I’m looking at one statistic telling me that there are 2 million fewer working-age immigrants in the U.S. today because of COVID immigration restrictions. Coupled with the low unemployment rate, wouldn’t that suggest that we’re currently living in the tight labor market that you feel would be good for this social problem? And if we are currently living in a tight labor market, wouldn’t we begin to see employers react to that and enact some of the prescriptions that you would like, like higher wages and better benefits?

Krikorian: First of all, the disruptions caused by the, not by the pandemic, but by the reactions to the pandemic, make that situation, make it hard to judge what the hell is going on. I think that maybe the more accurate way to judge the efficacy of immigration reductions is to look at the 18 months or so before the pandemic when the economy was expanding. And for the first time ever in an economic expansion, the immigrant population grew more slowly. There was still an increase in the foreign-born population, but it was much less than it had been before Trump. And what we saw was, for the first time in maybe two generations, wages of workers at the bottom went up. And in fact, wage growth was faster for those at the bottom than those higher up. And we saw an increase in the share of working-age people who were actually in the labor market.

So the pandemic and all the reactions from the pandemic, including these extended unemployment payments and all the rest of it that is seen makes it, in my opinion, makes the experience of what we’re seeing now very difficult to use as a judge of efficacy. But before the pandemic, in an economy that basically was like the economy in decades before, we saw for the first time less skilled workers doing better and more people being drawn into the labor market. All of that being said, less skilled workers are making more money in the current environment. And that’s why you’re seeing that, what do they call it? There’s a handy word for it, where people are more likely to quit jobs.

Ideaspace: The Great Resignation.

Krikorian: Yeah. The reason that’s possible is that ordinary workers have bargaining power so that if they don’t like the job they’re in — whether it’s because of the pay, or the boss is a jerk, whether they just don’t like the work — they have the opportunity now to quit and get another job. Either make more money or start a whole new occupation. So, even in the unique circumstance that we’ve been in over the past couple of years, less skilled workers are doing better and the kind of responses we need to see aren’t just better wages and more flexibility on the part of employers. That’s part of it, there’s no question about it. But if you’re going to be drawing people back into the labor market, we may well need to do more than that. We may need to see things like a domestic guest-worker program where resort operators, summer resort operators actually recruit nationwide and fly you to Cape Cod or to Northern Michigan and put you up and then fly you home or something like that. We may need more extensive prisoner reentry programs where when people get out of jail after say 18-month sentences for selling drugs that a larger share of them are enrolled in some program where they’re taught how to do kitchen work for instance. Things like that exist, but they’re more likely the result of simple altruism. In a tight labor market, employers, or even industry associations may seek out that kind of thing much more aggressively and enthusiastically because they need it to develop their staff. Whereas now, there is stuff like that, but it’s people doing it as almost charity work. And that’s good. I mean, they’re doing God’s work, but you can’t base social policy on hoping that people will be altruistic.

Ideaspace: You talked about that window between Trump’s inauguration and the start of the pandemic, and how wages were rising for the less skilled, and how more people were being drawn into the labor market. But during that pre-pandemic period of low immigration and economic expansion there were still reports of labor shortages that were dramatically stagnating certain industries around the country, including agriculture in North Carolina and STEM in the Dakotas.

Krikorian: Right. Two things I’d say about that. One is, those reports are coming from employers and employers would always rather workers hustle to try to get jobs rather than they, the employers, having to hustle to get workers, because policy is going to do one or the other. It’s going to either empower workers and increase their bargaining power, or it’s going to empower employers and increase their bargaining power. And given that choice, I think it’s only responsible to say that government policy should put employers in the place of having to hustle to find workers rather than the other way around. Now you could argue otherwise, you could say it’s good that regular workers are at the mercy of employers. I just don’t think that’s good policy. I think there is a moral angle to that decision about who should have the greater bargaining power. You can, I guess, make a plausible case that there should be a loose labor market to make the lives of employers easier, but I disagree.

And that’s why we have politics. And if that’s what you think, then make that argument. Just be honest, just say that you want to be able to take your pick among people all raising their hands trying to get a job rather than the worker being able to take his pick of jobs because employers are all vying for him.

Ideaspace: What strikes me as interesting is that if we weren’t talking about immigration at all, and we were just talking about labor dynamics — you’re calling for employers to do the right thing and increase wages and benefits in order to attract workers — I’d think you were a lefty.

Krikorian: Well, it’s a social democratic argument, I guess, a pro-worker argument. But this has always been my argument. The fact that you’re seeing this from other people who are on the right, but never made those arguments in the past, is just a sign of the political realignment we’re seeing that Trump was an expression of. So yeah, you’re right to some degree. 

Ideaspace: Would you categorize it as a lefty argument?

Krikorian: No, I would not necessarily, but it is one that the left has championed. There’s no question about it. But the point is that the left has offered intervention by the state as the way to empower workers. Whereas I think maybe there’s a role for that, but that doesn’t usually work very well. I’d rather the market be what forces employers to pay more and be more solicitous toward workers. The state still has to be involved, but the way you do that is more a hands-off way, by limiting foreign entrance into the labor market, and then letting the tug of war between business and labor take place.

Ideaspace: And would there be a role for unions and collective bargaining?

Krikorian: Remember, unions aren’t just a bunch of guys who got together. The whole issue of collective bargaining and unionization and the rest of it is an artifact of federal government policy, of statutes — the law establishes rules for how unionization can take place. And just let me say from my own, this is personally, not a CIS view: Organized labor really has become corrupted in the sense of capital “O” capital “L.” That’s one of the reasons there’s been such a dramatic flight from unionization. But the idea of workers being able to act collectively so you don’t have each individual having to face a big company on his own: I’m for that. I just don’t know that our current laws related to labor are necessary to do that. But yes, workers should be able to act collectively in some way. That’s necessary. Because otherwise you got one guy and you’re going up against Amazon, and that’s not good.

Ideaspace: So lowercase “o”, lowercase “l”, organized labor.

Krikorian: Yeah, absolutely.

Ideaspace: You mentioned the realignment. What you’re speaking to is the Republican Party under Trump becoming increasingly more the party of the working class.

Krikorian: Absolutely. [Trump] accelerated it to some degree, but it wasn’t something that Trump just invented and it just happened because of him. You’re seeing guys like Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Josh Hawley and other people who are actually trying to look at ways that Republicans can become more pro-worker while avoiding the problems that the Democrats have fallen into. In other words, using excessive state power or using the law in ways that are counterproductive to help workers. There’s a lot of Republican thinking now on how to develop pro-worker policies while avoiding the pitfalls that same impulse fell into in the past.

Ideaspace: That must be causing friction within the Republican Party, between this new pro-worker strain and the Republican Party being historically the pro-business party.

Krikorian: The answer is yes, absolutely. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, probably the biggest, most important lobby in Washington, is now dead to the Republican Party. And that’s maybe a little bit of an exaggeration, but they do not get along at all. Because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been pro-Big Tech, and because it’s been for unlimited immigration. It’s not as though Republicans will never allow somebody from the Chamber to ever again to darken their doors, but the Chamber is not welcome in a lot of Republican offices in the way that it used to be. It’s become much more oriented toward the Democrats. They funded a lot more Democratic politicians and they’re on the outs with the Republicans. So, I mean, that’s one really obvious place. You see this tension between the old, I would submit, excessively business friendly, and the newer more populist pro-worker Republican Party that’s still inchoate, but it’s developing. Guys like J.D. Vance and Blake Masters and others. It’s still something that’s aborning, but it’s a real thing.

Ideaspace: Do you think this growing pro-worker strain in the Republican Party was happening on its own, or was that naturally following immigration issues related to workers? 

Ideaspace: They’re parallel. The alienation of Republican voters from the Republican elite has been something brewing for a while. I mean the Iraq War, I think, accelerated that. The fiasco of that war after the initial victory. Immigration clearly played a role. And George W. Bush, in fact, is probably the author of populism. George W. Bush is the one that lit the fuse that led to the populist explosion. And it’s not just the Iraq War, it was also his relentless two-year, maybe almost-three-year-long push for amnesty and increased immigration, which finally was defeated in 2007, but it took a lot to do it.

I mean, all the institutions of our society — including the Republican leadership, but also Big Business and Big Labor and Big Media and Big Academia and Big Philanthropy and Big Religion — everybody was in favor of that push under George W. Bush in 2005, ’06, and ’07. John McCain and Ted Kennedy were central to it. And it failed because of a populist explosion. I would point to that as the beginning of the realignment within the Republican Party. 

So immigration was very important to this, but I don’t think it’s the only thing. Like I said, I think the fiasco of the Iraq War, which really became obvious. During that same immigration debate, or that same period, the mid-2000s, you had all these ordinary Republican voters, who are much more likely to have some kid get crippled in Iraq, and their leadership was insouciant about it, and if anything, war mongering. And so like I said, immigration’s a part of what has fueled this realignment, but it’s not the only thing. It’s one of several forces.

You saw the beginnings of it even under Patrick Buchanan, because he was critiquing open immigration and too much war and excessively open trade as well — the three main issues that are driving this. He didn’t win in the end, but he started tapping into something. And if you had to identify the ultimate cause, or the initial cause, it was the end of the Cold War because the confluence of interest between the elite and the broader public on not just foreign policy, but really on much of our policy, ended with the end of the Cold War and history restarted, as it were. And the elites of the Republican Party just didn’t get it. And it took more than 25 years for them to finally get whacked in the head with a two-by-four, but eventually it happened.

Ideaspace: When you talk about realignment and the Iraq War, the Iraq War is largely seen as a Republican project.

Krikorian: Not among Republicans.

Ideaspace: When you say realignment, you’re more talking about an intra-party realignment.

Krikorian: Yes. The Republican Party is changing. And the fact is that the pro-war hawkishness — I don’t know, hawkish is not the right word because I think most Republican voters are hawkish — the interventionist perspective of the leadership of the Republican Party has become completely de-legitimized. And that same leadership was also in favor of unlimited immigration and essentially unregulated trade, so they’re all part of the same problem. And so the Republican Party internally, yes, it’s changed. But even externally, you’re seeing the Democrats become less and less the anti-war party. 

Ideaspace: Wait a second. But Biden is the one who took the U.S. out of Afghanistan and is now resolved not to intervene militarily in Ukraine.

Krikorian: Nonetheless, the Democratic Party is, like I say, it’s still mixed up. It hasn’t really sorted itself out. But the Democrats, under Obama: Who thought that overthrowing Gaddafi was a good idea? And who else did we get rid of? Under Clinton even, you had the interventions in the Balkans. Those things all add up. And I think we’re moving toward a situation where the Democrats become the party that’s more reflective of corporate interests and more interventionist in foreign policy, with the Republicans being less beholden and somewhat more skeptical, at least, of corporate interests, and less interventionist abroad.

Ideaspace: Post-Bush, yes.

Krikorian: Yes.

Ideaspace: As far as labor shortages, the last box I wanted to check was the declining birth rate in the U.S. It’s declined dramatically over the last number of years, over the last 12, 13 years, it’s taken a dip and the forecast is that it’s going to continue to trend downward.

Krikorian: Sure, just like every other country in the world.

Ideaspace: So that would be the immigration reductionist answer to the declining birth rate?

Krikorian: We published a long piece on the population estimates that the Census Bureau just did. First of all, the thing that got all the news about last year’s very low rate of population growth really is an artifact of the pandemic. The population growth rate for this year, next year is going to be higher. But the broad trend of a declining birth rate is real. And the issue is, what do we do about it? Every country’s fertility rate is going down. Even those countries in Africa, which are the only ones left with very high birth rates — are declining somewhat, just slower and from a much higher level. So the question is, how do you adjust to an aging society? And there’s all kinds of things you can do. Increase the retirement age slightly. I mean, there’s all kinds of ways to address this. The Census Bureau itself has said that immigration is a highly inefficient means of addressing the problems that a declining birth rate presents. 

We actually looked at the GDP growth in Japan, which has very little immigration compared to Australia and Canada, which both have very high immigration. It turns out that per capita GDP growth was actually slightly higher in Japan than in Australia and Canada. That doesn’t prove anything, but it does point to the fact that immigration is not necessary for per capita GDP growth. In other words, for individual people to be better off. Obviously, it makes the whole economy bigger, but that’s irrelevant. Who cares whether the economy is bigger or not. The question is, are the individual people who live there any better off. 

Now, aging populations are going to create challenges. You’re going to have to look at increased automation, for instance, labor saving technologies, or even labor aid is a different category where people still do the work, but it’s easier to do because you’re assisted by technology. In agriculture, things like conveyor belts in the field, so you don’t have to schlep heavy crates full of stuff to the end of the line once it’s full, that kind of thing.

But the point is, human society is going to have to come up with adaptations and innovations to deal with an older population because that’s happening literally everywhere. The average woman having 2.1 children in a lifetime is considered replacement level. Mexico’s total fertility rate is now at, or maybe even at this point below, replacement level. This is the case everywhere. Immigration, again, is at best a bandaid. At worst, a distraction by removing incentives to address the challenges that an older population creates. Our population isn’t going to be shrinking anytime soon. That’s already happening in Japan and Russia, and Germany, I think. China’s population will start declining soon. Ours probably is not going to start declining for a number of years yet, at least, if ever. 

And what are the reasons for a declining fertility rate? The decline of religion, presumably, is part of it. Women entering the workforce. There’s all kinds of factors that lead to this. And I don’t know, different countries are going to address it differently, but immigration is not going to change anything. It’s not some solution, partly because immigrants get older one year at a time just like everybody else, so you’d end up with having to have increasingly large numbers of immigrants, ever increasing every year, in order to stave off the mathematically inevitable aging of the population. And that’s just not feasible.

Ideaspace: What are your thoughts on the Biden administration thus far when it comes to immigration policy?

Krikorian: It’s been terrible. They were warned what would happen at the border if they pursued their policies and they just did them anyway, and it’s blown up in their face. The problem is he’s talked himself into a corner. 

Ideaspace: People on the left feel that he hasn’t done anything.

Krikorian: Sure. They do. I hear that too. I follow a bunch of people like that on Twitter, but obviously, that’s manifestly not true. The fact is he’s released last year something like 700,000 illegal aliens into the United States. Deportations have dropped. I think it was 70 percent from the year before and 80 percent from the pre-pandemic year 2019. He hasn’t done everything they want. There’s no question about that. And in fact, it seems that Susan Rice is stalling on other changes they were going to be making — things like dramatically expanding eligibility for asylum so that way more people at the border would just be let into the country. Likewise, with getting rid of Title 42. They’ve already limited the use of Title 42 dramatically. So, the left keeps complaining that it’s still in place. Okay, that’s true. He is still using it and they’re using it for a lot of people, but they’re using it much less than they have the authority to.

And so the slow walking of some of those changes is not because there’s any disagre

ement over policy. Susan Rice and Ron Klain are just as hostile to America’s borders as anybody else, but they’re more politically realistic and they realize this is going to contribute to the armageddon the Democratic Party is facing in November, and they’re trying to make it somewhat less disastrous for themselves by pulling a few of 

their punches. So in a sense, I’m almost rooting for the lefties who are complaining about the Biden administration not doing enough because the Biden administration doing what they want could result in no Democrats left in the House of Representatives come November.

Ideaspace: Speaking of electoral politics, what are your thoughts on Donald Trump in this moment and his future as a leader of the Republican Party, or of being elected to the White House in 2024?

Krikorian: This is just me talking now, because the Center for Immigration Studies doesn’t get into that specifically, but personally, as a voter who voted for Trump twice, I don’t want to vote for him a third time, if I can avoid it.

Ideaspace: Why so?

Krikorian: Trump performed an enormously important service in kicking open the door on a lot of these issues and exposing much of our leadership class as corrupt. And I don’t necessarily mean money corrupt, I mean corrupt in a whole variety of ways. But he not only has all kinds of baggage, but has real limitations. There are all kinds of things he could have done and didn’t do because he is who he is. 

Ideaspace: Because of his personal corruption?

Krikorian: No, no. It’s just his personal peccadilloes and, even just generally, not in a derogatory sense, but just his own personality and experience. They did a terrible job of staffing his administration. It was only like in the last six months of the administration that they actually figured out how to make sure they hired people who actually agreed with the president’s ostensible agenda. Likewise, he had no experience and no ability in working with Congress. And so there were potential opportunities to make advances that would be fixed into statute. In other words, actually pass as law and therefore make his policies harder to change.

Ideaspace: Like what, exactly?

Krikorian: Well, I mean the big thing they failed in doing was in 2018, getting a package through Congress, through the House at first, which would’ve amnestied a significant number of Dreamers in exchange for some real improvements, both in enforcement, but also in eliminating certain legal immigration categories. They were within like 10 votes of getting that passed in the House.

Ideaspace: You’re talking about ‘grand bargain’ amnesty?

Krikorian: Yeah, It’s a smaller version of the grand bargain. So, medium, a medium bargain. I mean, that was the good last bill and Paul Ryan sabotaged him on that.

Ideaspace: As far as I could tell, Trump was never for amnesty.

Krikorian: No, no he wasn’t. But when you’re talking about the Dreamers, he actually was willing. He was backing that approach because it was combined with plugging a lot of the loopholes that are the problems at the border, cutting some of the chain migration categories, legal immigration categories. No, he was for that. He got sabotaged. He got sandbagged by Paul Ryan on that because Ryan offered a parallel bill that didn’t do much of anything, but enabled Republicans to vote for that and say they voted for something tough on the border and enabled them to vote against the White House version of the bill so that neither one of them passed, but everybody got their ass covered. And that’s something that, a more sophisticated White House dealing with Congress would’ve understood was happening and they didn’t.

But my point is what I’d like to see — honestly, again, this is just me personally — is someone with actual governing experience, with some of Trump’s strengths but without his baggage. And the obvious person who’s the clear front-runner other than Trump is Governor DeSantis of Florida. So again, that’s just me personally, but I think the Republicans would be much better off with DeSantis as the nominee because there’s only one person in the world who could lose to Kamala Harris in 2024, and unfortunately that’s Trump. I don’t mean he would lose, but he’s the only person who could lose to her.

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