Why Immigration Is The Hole In Bernie Sanders’ Progressive Agenda

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign rally in Portland, Maine. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ROBERT F. BUKATY
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign rally in Portland, Maine. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ROBERT F. BUKATY

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders outlined his immigration reform plan Thursday, saying he would support comprehensive immigration reform and go further than President Barack Obama to protect undocumented immigrants already in the United States. But when it comes to allowing new immigrants into the country, Sanders reiterated his position that opening the border would hurt employment and wages.

“I see two issues. I see the absolute need to provide legal status and protection to the undocumented people who are in this country now — some 11 million people,” the independent senator from Vermont said during a Q&A; with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Thursday.

“But here’s where I do have concerns,” he continued. “There is a reason why Wall Street and all of corporate America likes immigration reform, and it is not, in my view, that they’re staying up nights worrying about undocumented workers in this country. What I think they are interested in is seeing a process by which we can bring low-wage labor of all levels into this country to depress wages for Americans, and I strongly disagree with that.”

Sanders’ position on immigration has been called “complicated” and he has been criticized by immigration activists for supporting the idea that immigrants coming to the U.S. are taking jobs and hurting the economy, a theory that has been proven incorrect. Both of his leading Democratic challengers, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley, have recognized that new immigrants coming to the country actually boost the economy. But Sanders continues to align himself more closely with Democratic positions of the past.


“I frankly do not believe that we should be bringing in significant numbers of unskilled to workers to compete with [unemployed] kids,” Sanders said. “I want to see these kids get jobs.”

Studies have shown that immigrants actually create jobs for American workers. Researchers recently found that each new immigrant has produced about 1.2 new jobs in the U.S., most of which have gone to native-born workers. And according to the Atlantic, an influx in immigration can cause non-tradable professions — jobs like hospitality and construction that cannot be outsourced — to see a wage increase because the demand for goods and services grows with the expanding population.

But Sanders fails to see it that way, pointing on Thursday to the 36 percent unemployment rate for Hispanic young people. “You bring a lot of unskilled workers into this country, what do you think happens to that 36 percent?”

Sanders’ poor track record on immigration goes back further than just his presidential campaign. In 2007, he voted against a bipartisan immigration reform bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). At the progressive Netroots Nation conference earlier this month, Sanders said the reform bill would have allowed for low wage workers to enter the country who would “be competing against kids in this country who desperately need jobs.”

But Sanders did vote for the 2013 immigration reform bill, which also included guest worker programs and contained most of the same measures as the 2007 bill that he opposed.


“There’s a very significant difference in scope of what the recent bill does compared to what that bill does,” Bernie said Thursday. “My concern about the bill that I voted against has to do with…that there was too much emphases on bringing low-wage workers into this country. What I want to see and what is better about the recent bill is that number one, there is a path towards citizenship which is absolutely essential. And second of all, that I was able to get a fairly significant amount of money into providing jobs for young people in this country.”

At the USHCC event, Sanders also highlighted the more progressive parts of his immigration plan, which include comprehensive reform and a path toward citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented Americans.

“Economically and morally, it is unacceptable that we have millions of workers who are living in the shadows,” he said. “Some of my Republican colleagues apparently think that the solution is I guess in the middle of the night to round up everybody and throw them out of the country. I think that anybody thinking those kinds of ideas is ugly beyond belief.”