A Virtual Debate with Sen. Pat Toomey, Champion of the World's Unskilled (but Not Our Own)

By Jerry Kammer, June 23, 2013

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) took up the cause of the unskilled workers of the world on Thursday when he declared that the Senate immigration bill's provisions for low-wage, non-agricultural guest worker visas are "wildly inadequate" to the needs of the American economy.

Toomey, of course, is a former president of the Club for Growth, which recently hailed him as "a fighter for free markets and limited government". In Thursday's speech on the Senate floor, Toomey made it clear that he doesn't believe in limited foreign competition for low-skilled and unskilled jobs in the United States.

Noting that the Senate bill sets an initial cap of 20,000 workers that would gradually rise to 75,000, Toomey said "These are absurdly low numbers by any reasonable measure. Frankly, you could consider this the anti-immigration bill."

Toomey then announced he was sponsoring an amendment that would start the cap at 200,000 and eventually raise it to 350,000.

I hereby offer a debate consisting of a series of virtual exchanges with the senator. Each exchange begins with an excerpt from Toomey's speech. It ends with an observation from writers and scholars who are more concerned about American workers than Sen. Toomey appears to be.

1) In the first exchange, the response to Toomey's complaint about the "absurdly low" number of visas for low skilled workers comes from Cornell University emeritus professor of economics Vernon Briggs.

In 2007 Briggs told a congressional committee:

Fifty-seven percent of the adult foreign-born population have only a high school diploma or less. That's where the impact is. And that's the people I defend, the low-wage workers of the United States of all races. ... Any public policy that hurts the poor, the low-income and the minority, and youth and women populations of the United States ... is a policy you've got to be deeply concerned about.

2) Said Toomey, describing his conception of the typical low-skilled immigrant:

I think about the 25-year-old Mexican guy in Central Mexico who lives in a poor community where prospects are grim and the standard of living is miserable and he wants to come here to build a better life.

The response, dedicated to unemployed workers in the former mill towns of central Pennsylvania, comes from Timothy Noah's 2012 book, The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.

Wrote Noah:

Undocumented immigrants are currently believed to constitute 20 to 36 percent of construction workers in low-skill trades. Construction work is a significant step up from unskilled labor, and until recently a unionized construction worker could reasonably expect to inhabit the middle class. That's a lot less true today, and one likely reason is immigration.

3) Said Toomey, describing the motivating force behind immigration:

I think what drives it is poor people who have very meager prospects who want to come to a rich country where there are great opportunities. It's people who want to work hard and build a better life for themselves and their families. It happens to be the exact same thing that drove every previous wave of immigration.

The response comes from Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, who has observed that millions of Americans have meager prospects and need an opportunity. Camarota compiled data on the unemployment rate of Americans and you can see the figures for all 50 states here. In Pennsylvania, for example, the broader measure of unemployment in 2012 for Americans no more than a high school diploma was 17.6 percent.

4) Said Toomey, claiming low-skilled immigration is inevitable:

I will tell you that if we do not raise the caps for the low-skilled workers who want to come to this country, then the next wave of illegal immigration is guaranteed, regardless of what we do at the border.

We have two responses. The first comes from Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who was appointed by President Carter to direct the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy. Said Hesburgh:

If U.S. immigration policy is to serve this nation's interests, it must be enforced effectively. This nation has a responsibility to its people — citizens and permanent residents — and failure to enforce immigration law means not living up to that responsibility.

The second response comes from Barbara Jordan, head of the mid-1990s U.S Commission on Immigration Reform. Said Jordan:

It is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest. ... If we are to preserve our immigration tradition and the ability to say yes to so many of those who seek entry, we must also have the strength to say no where we must.

5) Offering an interpretation of U.S. immigration history, Toomey said:

The story of America has been one wave of immigrants after another. And while millions of people were coming to this country, what was happening to America? We were becoming richer. Wages were rising. Our economy was growing. Our standard of living was increasing.

Our response begins with the editorial observation that this exceptional period ended long ago. It continues with this observation from John F. Kennedy in his book, A Nation of Immigrants, which was written in 1958:

There is, of course, a legitimate argument for some limitation upon immigration. We no longer need settlers for virgin lands, and our economy is expanding more slowly than in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

6) Said Toomey of those who want to restrict immigration:

If they think that that is harmful to our economy or to America and we need to keep those people out, as I'm afraid to say this bill does, that is a profound misreading of American history.

The response comes from The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It:

Did the Great Compression, the long and prosperous midcentury period during which incomes became more equal and stayed that way, owe a debt to the immigration restrictions imposed in the 1920s? The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson thought so. "By keeping labor supply down," he wrote in his best-selling economics textbook, a restrictive immigration policy "tends to keep wages high."

7) Our final exchange involves the Club for Growth's conviction that free trade should be seen as "trade freedom" and that to enable the free movement of low-wage immigrants is to enlarge human freedom. It comes from Clyde Prestowitz, who was the chief trade negotiator for Asia during the Reagan administration.

Said Prestowitz:

For some time now our best and brightest have been invoking false doctrines that are systematically undermining American prosperity. Leading among these is the economic orthodoxy of market fundamentalism, simplistic pure free trade.