President Donald Trump’s recently unveiled immigration plan is going nowhere with members of both parties. But while this policy gridlock is nothing new on the federal level, the situation is quite different outside Washington. State and local governments are making immigration policy all the time, mostly for the worse, and often Democrats are more restrictionist than Republicans.
Obviously the law can deter potential illegal migrants from entering the U.S. But so can the high cost of living. Even though there are much higher wages in the U.S. than in its neighbors to the south, a lot of those higher wages are eaten up by much higher rents — especially if the immigrant moves to a major city, as is often the case. I once wrote a book based on fieldwork in rural Mexico, and I found that, for those who had migrated temporarily to the U.S., high rent was typically their biggest complaint. It therefore follows that policies which raise rents tend to discourage immigrants, particularly poorer immigrants.
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.
Note that most cities in “Red America,” especially those in Texas, have fewer building restrictions than San Francisco or Los Angeles. These red cities and counties, and by extension states, are relatively pro-immigration in this regard.
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.
It turns out that one of the leading anti-immigration thinkers is in fact quite perceptive on this issue. Ron Unz has argued the “conservative case for a higher minimum wage,” in part on the grounds that it would limit illegal migration. In particular, if minimum-wage laws were truly and strictly enforced, employers would not and could not court illegal workers for the purposes of lowering their wage bill.
Higher-skilled immigrants, of course, would likely be earning above the minimum wage. Higher minimum wages could thus result in the kind of immigration policy many conservatives favor: discouraging the migration of the less skilled without choking off the migration of the more skilled. I don’t agree with Unz on either immigration restrictions or higher minimum wages, but he deserves credit for pointing out this connection.
So don’t pay too much attention to all the rhetoric at the national level. Immigration policy is about a lot more than just border enforcement or ICE raids. It’s also about what kind of a living immigrants to the U.S. can earn, and on that score the Republicans are often the more pro-immigrant party.
Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University