Vice President Kamala Harris had strong words for migrants making their way to America’s border on her first trip as vice president, to Guatemala. “Do not come,” Harris said—twice—while speaking to reporters. “The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border. There are legal methods by which migration can and should occur, but we, as one of our priorities, will discourage illegal migration.”
Her words were a rebuke to the masses of people flocking to the southern border since Joe Biden won the presidency, some of whom have explicitly referenced Biden’s language on immigration as the impetus for their journey north. But the idea that America should have a national border—one which it polices and secures—and that America is entitled to a formal legal process whereby it grants citizenship to would-be immigrants, was not an obvious point to everyone.
“This is disappointing to see,” tweeted Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), the standard-bearer for the progressive Left. “First, seeking asylum at any US border is a 100% legal method of arrival. Second, the US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s disappointment that Vice President Harris was discouraging illegal immigration seemed to suggest that the only position she would welcome would be one in which every immigrant is indiscriminately welcomed. In publicly expressing her dissent, Ocasio-Cortez telegraphed to the Biden administration in no uncertain terms that any legal restrictions at all on immigration will face fierce opposition from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. She was not the only one.
This view, that discouraging illegal immigration is a white nationalist value, is actually a new one for progressives. “Open borders?” democratic socialist Bernie Sanders (D-VT) scoffed in an interview with Ezra Klein for Vox as recently as 2015. “That’s a Koch Brothers proposal.”
“It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn’t it?” Klein pressed.
“It would make everybody in America poorer,” Sanders responded. “You’re doing away with the concept of a nation-state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that. If you believe in a nation-state or in a country called the United States or U.K. or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people.”
It was a right-wing proposition to have unbridled immigration, Sanders insisted as recently as six years ago. “What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy,” Sanders explained. “Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that.”
Sanders was voicing what many Americans—both white and people of color— had already figured out. A large majority of African Americans and Hispanics said they would vote for a presidential candidate who stood for strengthening our border security to reduce illegal immigration, a 2019 Harvard-Harris poll found. That shouldn’t be surprising; illegal immigration has been tied to a 20-60 percent decrease in Black working-class wages. Another recent study suggested that immigration accounts for a third of the decline in the Black employment rate over the last 40 years. “Black Americans are more supportive of limiting immigration than any other bloc of the Democratic coalition. And Hispanics actually tend to be more concerned about illegal immigration than are whites or Blacks,” the sociologist Musa al Gharbi reported.
You wouldn’t know this to listen to the politicians and influencers of the Democratic Party—and not just from the progressive wing; when Democratic candidates running for the 2020 presidential nomination were asked if they would decriminalize illegal border crossing, almost all of them said yes.
Why? How did progressive leaders go from understanding that mass immigration is a de facto tax on the poor—as recently as six years ago—to casting it as the only morally defensible position, the only non-racist one?
It has to do with who the Democrats‘ new base is. In a new paper, the French economist Thomas Piketty along with a others detailed a colossal shift that has been underway in Western democracies in terms of who populates the ranks of the Left. If in the 1960s, the Democratic Party and other liberal-leaning political parties were filled with members of the working class, over the course of the past 60 years, they have become the bastion of the highly educated—a Brahmin Left whose concerns and demands increasingly constitute Democrats’ agenda.
It’s counterintuitive, write Picketty et al., given the skyrocketing inequality across the developed world. “Given this recent evolution, one might have expected to observe rising political demand for redistribution and the return of class-based (income-based or wealth-based) politics,” write the economists. “Instead, Western democracies seem to have shifted to new forms of identity-based conflicts in recent decades, embodied by the increasing salience of environmental issues and the growing prosperity of anti-establishment authoritarian movements.”
A class-based political spectrum has been replaced by what Picketty et al. call a “multi-elite party system.” If we once had one party representing the rich and one party representing labor, today, we have one party representing the rich and one party representing the highly educated and no party representing the working class. In 2020, Biden won 84 of the 100 counties with the highest percentage of college degree-holders. But the ranks of the rich are increasingly split, too: In 2020, Wall Street donors gave more money to Biden than to Trump.
Needless to say, they didn’t do so because they are keen on economic redistribution.
The truth is, the Brahmin Left doesn’t want redistribution; it wants culture wars over identity. It wants environmentalism, open borders, and student loan forgiveness.
Open borders was once the calling card of the libertarian-infused Right. Now, it’s a humanitarian cri de coeur that flatters the vanity of highly educated liberals while working class Americans of all races bear the burden—and are then smeared as racists for being afraid they might lose their jobs due to an influx of labor.
“The history of Citizenship in the US is deeply woven with the history of racism,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez back in 2019. “It has been used as the legal enforcer of racism for most of US history.”
She got it exactly backwards: Protections from racism, like all civil rights, depend on a national border and on the compact a sovereign citizenry makes with its own government. A Left that was invested in the working class wouldn’t have forgotten this, wouldn’t have had the luxury of smearing people afraid of losing their jobs—people of all races—as racists. But instead of listening to the concerns of our multiracial working class, the Democrats are listening to the Squad—the patron saints of the Brahmin Left.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the deputy opinion editor of Newsweek.
The views in this article are the writer’s own.