Former Maryland Governer Martin O’Malley gave a great speech on American immigration policy. I learned a lot about the underlying political theory, as well as some common misconceptions and false equivalences.
This was my second time attending a Yale Political Union (YPU) debate. For more background on the YPU and their debate events, check out my last post on Bobby Jindal’s talk.
Over the past month, immigration has really taken the spotlight. In local news, a Yale student’s father was detained by ICE, leading to a national campaign (#FreeMelecio) and his daughter’s symbolic attendance at the State of the Union. Deportation orders forced two New Haven residents to seek sanctuary at a church right outside campus. In national news, the repeal of DACA shocked the country and triggered a government shutdown. And of course, Trump’s proposed border wall is still the subject of heated debate.
Immigration reform has always struck me as the kind of topic that is very easy to have opinions on without much background. Not wanting to be one of those people, I decided to read up a bit more on immigration policy and hear from someone who has played an active role in determining immigration policy for years.
As a governor and mayor, Martin O’Malley made several decisions influencing the status of undocumented immigrants in Baltimore and Maryland. Wikipedia provides a relevant and concise introduction of his background (edited and spliced for conciseness):
Martin O’Malley is an American politician and attorney who served as the 61st Governor of Maryland from 2007-2015. He previously served as the Mayor of Baltimore, on the Baltimore City Council, as chair of the Democratic Governors Association, and as a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins’s Carey Business School. O’Malley ran for the 2016 presidential election, but suspended his campaign after finishing third in the Iowa caucuses.
As governor, O’Malley signed a law making the children of undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state college tuition; a majority (58%) of state voters passed the law. During the 2014 crisis involving undocumented immigrant children from Central America crossing the border, O’Malley faced White House criticism for refusing to open a facility to house them.
O’Malley endorses a path to citizenship, deferred action programs, limiting detentions, and stricter border enforcement.
O’Malley’s presidential campaign website provides a more detailed breakdown.
O’Malley was clearly a practiced orator. He only referenced his notes occasionally, and answered questions as smoothly as he delivered the speech itself. He cited evidence constantly and injected his speech with bits of flair. It’s difficult to fact-check during a speech, of course, but the level of boo-hiss helped me gauge which claims I should look up later.
O’Malley started by quoting from “The New Colossus,” a well-known sonnet by Emma Lazarus about the Statue of Liberty:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
He then delivered a short and unstructured litany of arguments about the spirit of American welcoming, the dignity of persons, the ethical wrong of creating stateless people, and the racism and fear that he believes to drive immigration hard-liners.
I was surprised by how long O’Malley spent framing the resolution, “support sanctuary cities,” within the broader context of immigration reform. The cynical side of me thinks that this is just so that he can lean on more practiced, off-topic arguments (it sounded a bit like a recycled campaign speech). Still, his approach did expand the breadth of topics I learned about.
I was especially interested in the argument against creating “stateless people,” and violating Article 14 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, that “everyone has the right to a nationality.” In high school debate, I had read a bit about Agamben’s concept of homo sacer, and it helped me wrap the impact of deportation around some political theory.
I was also interested in how he connected current immigration policy (including Trump’s infamous comment about “shithole countries”) to historic exclusionary anti-Irish and anti-Chinese legislation. It called attention to the history of immigration policy and its racial components. I only wished he spent a bit more time expanding on these parallels later in his speech.
With these starting points, O’Malley made three key arguments, which he enumerated as “Facts”: (1) healthy immigration levels are key to US economic prosperity, (2) new immigrants strengthen public safety, and (3) new immigrants reaffirm American values. I summarize each of them along with my own thoughts below.
1. Economic Prosperity
Immigrants are more likely to start businesses. In fact, 1st and 2nd generation immigrants have founded 43% of the Fortune 500, contributing to the employment of over 12 million workers worldwide.
On the whole, higher immigrant diversity have also been shown to be related to higher productivity and wages. There is no evidence that immigrants steal jobs or force down wages. On the contrary: as diversity rose 1 standard deviation in the workplace, wages rose 1.6%; a similar rise in the city as a whole increased wages by by 5.8%. Even low-skill immigrants contribute to this increase.
All told, a health level of immigration is important for U.S. economic prosperity.
O’Malley’s arguments that immigrants start businesses and create jobs were relatively uncontroversial. Even the right-wing groups were knocking and whistling (then again, this might just speak to how liberal Yale is). O’Malley cited data from reputable sources, and his underlying logic (that immigrants have greater incentives to improve their station in life) made sense to me. His claims were also consistent with my own experiences. My dad started a small business that today employs around a dozen people, and many of my most entrepreneurial friends are 1st- or 2nd-generation immigrants.
However, O’Malley provided little substantive analysis on immigration’s effects on wages and job competition. The laws of supply and demand predict a 3% decrease in wages for every 10% increase of interchangeable workers, and there’s no reason that immigrants would be immune. The data shows that immigrants have increased the low-skilled labor pool by around 25% in the last 20 years, contributing to a $800–$1,500 decrease in average annual earnings. At the same time, immigrants receive government assistance at a higher rate than natives, taking out around $50 billion more than they put in.
All in all, immigrants are likely to have helped the United States as a whole, but probably not as much as O’Malley claims. The reality seems more complicated. Many immigrants contribute tremendously through productivity and taxes; others contribute less. The same is true of native workers. Some Americans will benefit, and others (disproportionally African-American and Hispanic) will be hurt. Economics is only part of the picture, but we should be honest about some of the drawbacks of immigration so that we can address them effectively.
2. Public Safety
Politicians have stoked a fear of immigrants pouring over the Southern border, but in fact, net migration with Mexico has been negative since 2007. At the same time, immigrants can strengthen public safety, especially if they are given incentives around obtaining citizenship. DACA recipients, in particular, are 44% less likely to be incarcerated.
I already knew about U.S. net migration to Mexico, but had never looked into effects on crime. Try as I might, I could not find any data supporting O’Malley’s claim that DACA recipients are 44% less likely to be incarcerated. The closest I found was a brief by the Cato Institute reporting that DACA-eligible immigrants (DREAMers) were 12.5% less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans. Startlingly, DACA-ineligible immigrants were 66.1% less likely to be incarcerated, and legal immigrants were 78.6% less likely. The brief notes that DREAMers may have more similar crime rates to natives because they have been better able to acclimate.
The same brief cites numerous studies arguing that legal and illegal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or to be incarcerated than their native-born peers. This suggests that immigrants face stronger deterrent effects, or that migration itself has a selection effect. Either way, I think O’Malley’s point is fairly solid–immigrants do improve public safety.
3. American Values
Immigrants don’t undermine American values, racism undermines American values. Many immigrants risked their lives to come here, and have demonstrated a willingness to work hard for a better future. 62% of immigrants have lived in the U.S. for over ten years; 90% have lived here for over five. There are 65,000 new immigrants serving in the armed forces, and 900 of them are DREAMers. O’Malley has attended their funerals, touched the caskets, and wept with parents. As Mayor, he refused to turn local law enforcement into a federal tool. He refused to bring them into for-profit internment centers and create a whole class of stateless people.
This was O’Malley’s most emotionally-charged point. He went hard for the military service angle and tied back the Emma Lazarus quote at the end. Additionally, he finally made some comments about the actual topic (enforcing federal laws) and described his own experience with Baltimore as a sanctuary city.
This is a very subjective area to debate. In my totally unbiased opinion, I agree with the general concept of long-term immigrants deserving consideration based on their contributions to our country. However, I will point out that all of O’Malley’s numbers include legal immigrants as well as illegal immigrants, which is a bit disingenuous. He does touch on some arguments about enforcing federal immigration law, including a new argument around the prison-industrial complex, but not in enough depth to warrant more discussion.
Q: What would you say is a healthy level of immigration?
A: The levels we saw in 1925, which would place new immigrants at around 13% of our total population.
Q: How do you reconcile protecting new immigrant communities with your zero tolerance policing and their harmful effects on such communities?
A: I pushed to gain the public’s trust of immigrant communities using public safety gains. I enacted policies to address open-air drug dealing and people saw the difference. I was re-elected with 88% of the vote.
Q: What is your heuristic for determining when civil disobedience is justified?
A: Obedience to the Constitution.
Q: Do you think a state or city should be allowed to nullify federal regulations in general?
A: This gets to the heart of federalism. No, we cannot just reject federal laws whenever we feel like it. However, states and local governments do have jurisdiction over certain topics. One is checking executive despotism. We cannot ever create a national police force for immigrant roundup. If the federal government has warrants, they should bring them. They did not have them in our state. We refuse to sweep someone up for a driving ticket or broken tailight. There are over 325,000 immigrants who have been interned on a for-profit basis; many have been waiting for months. We have not seen abusive police powers like this since the Japanese internment camps. Local governments should have the backbone to stand up to this.
O’Malley’s arguments seemed reasonable and well-cited. However, his arguments and evidence tended to focus specifically on Dreamers and the benefits that immigrants bring. He spoke little on sanctuary cities, federalism, civil disobedience, and constitutional authority. His rhetoric doesn’t perfectly match his record as governor (particularly on preventing deportations), but he seems genuinely committed to certain policy priorities, such as securing a path to citizenship.
All in all, I’m convinced that immigration reform deserves all the attention that it’s been getting. I have a better handle on how DACA, ICE enforcement, and deportation policies all fit together, and I’m interested in seeing how the public conversation continues to evolve around these issues.
Student 1: “O’Malley was lookin’ pretty good. If he were younger, I’d shoot my shot.”
Student 2: “He’s no Joe Biden, but definitely, I would too.”
Student (Tory Party): “This week, we will debate ‘Arrange Your Child’s Marriage.”
O’Malley: Rubs face.
The Yale Daily News wrote a piece on O’Malley’s talk. It seemed remarkably sparse on details, but I was interested to hear some party positions that I wasn’t able to stick around for.