Does Joe Biden Care About Struggling Blue-Collar American Workers?

Of Barbara Jordan and the ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’

By Andrew R. Arthur on September 18, 2023

Ever since he became president, Joe Biden has ignored congressional mandates requiring illegal border migrants to be detained, releasing 2.3 million of them — at least — into the United States. Many are unaccompanied alien children or kids with parents in “family units”, but the majority are working-age adults, few of whom have advanced employment skills. On top of that, Biden is now bringing in 360,000 Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan nationals per year over and above Congress’ limits as part of his (illegal) “CHNV” parole program. All of which raises the question: Does Joe Biden care about struggling blue collar “American workers”, both citizens and lawful immigrants? Because their interests have been largely lost in the ongoing border debate.

Why We Have Immigration Laws. The grounds of inadmissibility in section 212(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) codify Congress’ reasons for keeping certain foreign nationals out of the United States. They also explain why we have immigration laws that keep certain foreign nationals out of the country to begin with.

Section 212(a)(1) of the INA, “Health-related grounds”, prevents the introduction and spread of certain diseases into the United States, and relieves U.S. taxpayers of the burden of providing costly and limited medical care to the rest of the world. Section 212(a)(2), “Criminal and related grounds”, protects Americans from criminal predation, while section 212(a)(3), “Security and related grounds”, was written to protect the homeland from spies, terrorists, and persecutors and to safeguard U.S. international relations.

Paragraph (4) of section 212(a), “Public charge”, is meant to protect the public fisc from foreign nationals who would draw upon public benefits, and to promote the American ideal of self-sufficiency; (6) requires all aliens to enter legally and bars the admission of those who don’t; the related (7) sets out the “Documentation requirements” for admission; (8) bars aliens who are “Ineligible for citizenship” from admission; (9) stops previously removed aliens from readmission; and (10), captioned “Miscellaneous”, is a catch-all for other aliens Congress chooses not to let in, such as polygamists, international child abductors, unlawful voters, and those who renounced their U.S. citizenship to avoid taxation.

Subparagraph 212(a)(5)(A)(i) of the INA. Which brings me to section 212(a)(5) of the INA, likely the most important (and of late, most ignored) provision in the ongoing border debate. It’s captioned “Labor certification and qualifications for certain immigrants”, and key to that ground of inadmissibility is the first subparagraph therein, which states in pertinent part:

(A) Labor certification — (i) In general. Any alien who seeks to enter the United States for the purpose of performing skilled or unskilled labor is inadmissible, unless the Secretary of Labor has determined and certified to the Secretary of State and the Attorney General that

(I) there are not sufficient workers who are able, willing, qualified ... and available at the time of application for a visa and admission to the United States and at the place where the alien is to perform such skilled or unskilled labor, and (II) the employment of such alien will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of workers in the United States similarly employed. [Emphasis added.]

Most “experts” contend this ground of inadmissibility only applies to aliens seeking to enter on employment-based immigrant visas, and that has some merit. But such a reading of this subparagraph only makes sense when the administration is actively enforcing the other nine grounds in section 212(a), and nothing therein limits its application to employment-visa immigrants.

The problem with the administration’s current “enforcement” scheme is, as noted, that President Biden keeps releasing aliens at the Southwest border whose entry violates sections 212(a)(6) and (7) of the INA, that is aliens who have entered illegally without proper admission documents. Biden’s not formally “admitting them”, but he is letting them enter, in the millions, and putting most in a position to seek work authorization and public benefits.

While facially the Biden administration is letting those migrants enter so they can seek asylum, listen to the migrants themselves and most are coming to work, not to seek asylum as legally defined. Consider the following, from the New York Times on September 9:

Jorge Rodríguez, 39, came to Manhattan from his home in Maracay, Venezuela, last year, with $100 in his pocket, having trekked through the infamous jungle stretch between Colombia and Panama known as the Darien Gap. Since then, he’s been able to find odd construction jobs, commuting to work to Staten Island and installing new wooden floors, making closets or building swimming pools.

He earns around $150 per day, enough to send money home and rent a room in New Lots, Brooklyn. Still, he’d like to work more — and legally.

“Without papers to work, you can’t grow much,” he said. “Sometimes, if they offer you something better — or where jobs are needed — they ask for papers and without that, people take advantage.”

Nowhere is there even a hint that Mr. Rodriguez is fleeing “persecution” — a condition precedent for asylum — and when the administration offers its take on why so many migrants are coming illegally, it lists reasons such as “food insecurity, severe poverty ... climate change, the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and dire economic conditions”.

None of those are bases for asylum, either, but it’s a major admission that those migrants are coming — and the administration is releasing them into the United States — so they can work here.

Now, powerful House Democrats are demanding that the administration allow those migrants to work, and speaking of the Times, it reports that the White House is begging eligible migrants to seek work authorization, even while it’s “ramping up efforts to ensure that some of those people can get jobs — a move designed to ease the spiraling political and financial costs of the crisis”.

What Congress Can Do — and What It Should Be Doing. Congress has the power to expand the asylum definition in section 208(b)(1)(B) of the INA to cover aliens who are fleeing “food insecurity, severe poverty ... climate change, the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and dire economic conditions”. I know that, because as a staffer I drafted the current iteration of that provision, including the limitations therein, as part of the REAL ID Act of 2005.

I literally took a pad of white paper, looked at the then-current version of the law and cases interpreting it, and wrote the words you see. Well, most of those words, at least.

That’s because I’m not and never have been a member of Congress, and those who were at the time wanted changes to reflect their concerns. Those words went through the legislative process — committee mark-up, House floor votes and amendments, consideration by the Senate, and an often-contentious conference committee with members chosen from both chambers — and they eventually made their way into the bill that was sent to the White House for the president’s signature.

If the members of Congress want to expand the asylum definition to include “food insecurity, severe poverty ... climate change, the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and dire economic conditions”, they and they alone have the power to do so. The same is true of those powerful House Democrats who are asking the president to expand work eligibility for migrants here.

But they haven’t done so and likely won’t. Instead, they are urging the president to “use all the tools available to provide stability to undocumented individuals and recently arrived asylum seekers, seeking to work lawfully, support their families, and contribute to the economy”.

The “tools” in question are the current executive powers in the INA. But those tools are inadequate to do what those members of Congress want them to do, kind of like how the modified Ford Crown Victoria Lee Meyer was using to transport his Watusi bull, “Howdy Doody”, was illegal for bovine transport, as a cop explained to him when he was pulled over in Nebraska (as seen in a recent viral video).

Those members work on the congressional assembly line where more adequate tools to do the job they are clamoring for are made. So why don’t they amend the INA as I helped do 18 years ago?

Because that would open up a debate on the effects millions of newly legal low-skilled alien workers would have on, to quote subparagraph 212(a)(5)(A)(I) of the INA, “the wages and working conditions of workers in the United States similarly employed”.

The “Extremely Tight Labor Market”. In February, the Wall Street Journal published an article headlined “U.S. Business Owners Pay Premium to Hire Migrant Workers in Extremely Tight Labor Market”. It began:

Migrants who come to the U.S. to find work are now being hired more quickly, at higher pay and under better working conditions than at any time in recent memory. In many cases, employers and economists say, migrant workers are being paid as well as their American counterparts. [Emphasis added.]

I certainly hope that “migrant workers are being paid as well as their American counterparts”, because again, that is what section 212(a)(5)(A)(i) of the INA requires, but the modifier “in many cases” suggests that higher wages for those migrants are the exception — not the rule.

There’s a lot of conclusory statements that I take exception to in that article, starting with its initial focus solely on the unemployment rate:

Job vacancies in the U.S. increased to 11 million at the end of December, according to the Labor Department. While the tightness appears to be easing in the white-collar job market, employers say finding hourly wage workers remains a challenge. Unemployment hit 3.4% in January, the lowest rate in 53 years.

I guess that the Journal would be heartened to learn that the unemployment rate has since ticked up in the interim to 3.8 percent in August, even as nonfarm payroll employment increased by 187,000, but if migrant labor is the boon to the U.S. economy that article suggests, why exactly has there been “easing in the white-collar job market”? Are there a lot of accountants being driven north by “climate change”?

Of course, referencing the unemployment rate alone misses a key and particularly problematic indicator that my colleague Steven Camarota has been discussing a lot of late: the labor force participation rate — the share of Americans working or looking for work — which for “U.S.-born men of working-age has declined for six decades in nearly every state, especially for men without a bachelor’s degree”.

There is an entire section in that Journal article captioned “supply and demand”, but it focuses on “labor shortages that hurt sales, investment and growth” and the illegality of hiring unauthorized workers, while eliding the fact that there are likely a large number of willing American workers in many of the industries mentioned there (including construction), but that the wages offered are too low to lure them.

The authors should have elicited more comment from the wisest economist they did interview, “Lenin Cálix, an Ecuadorean migrant who belongs to the United Workers of Washington D.C.”.

As he explained: “It’s very important that newcomers avoid offering their services at a much lower price to prevent a broader drop in wages.” That’s the definition of supply and demand in the labor market, why unions exist to begin with, and the reason the labor shortage the authors decry — and the low labor force participation rate Camarota describes — is so endemic.

“Rich Men North of Richmond”. Which brings me to Oliver Anthony, singer-songwriter and the “New Voice of America’s Working Class” according to Rupa Subramanya at The Free Press. Like Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) in the first act of the 1957 Elia Kazan classic, “A Face in the Crowd” (without Rhodes’ criminal record or alcohol issues), Anthony has risen from obscurity to strike a chord with a huge — and hungry — audience.

I have no idea what acts 2 and 3 will bring, but Anthony’s hit “Rich Men North of Richmond” went from a tiny YouTube audience to form the basis for the first question in the first GOP presidential debate (NPR suggests that the song and Anthony’s own concerns over child trafficking “hit on themes that are foundational to the QAnon conspiracy theory”, which it then ties to the odious “blood libel”).

The title alludes to the current state of D.C. politics, Richmond, Va., sitting 100 miles down I-95 from the National Capital, and the lyrics set the tone hot out of the gate, beginning:

I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day

Overtime hours for bullsh– pay

So I can sit out here and waste my life away

Drag back home and drown my troubles away

“Here” in Anthony’s case is Farmville, Va., county seat of Prince Edward County (unemployment rate: 4.4 percent), and that’s just the first verse. The QAnon/blood libel link NPR concocts is in a later verse, in which the singer explains:

I wish politicians would look out for miners

And not just minors on an island somewhere

Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat

And the obese milkin’ welfare

Of course, “minors on an island somewhere” is an allusion to, as Forbes puts it, “[r]umors ... that numerous celebrities and even politicians frequented” the late Jeffrey Epstein’s “island in the Caribbean, where illicit and inappropriate sexual activities with individuals under the age of 18 supposedly occurred”.

In any event, if there were such a massive labor shortage of the sort that the Journal describes in the United States that no American workers were available to fill, “overtime hours” would not result in “bullsh— pay” (just ask Mr. Cálix), and miners would be wealthy — and powerful — enough to look out for their own interests.

That Anthony struck such a chord — literally and metaphorically — with the listeners who sent his song to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart suggests that none of that is true.

Rather, as Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) at the House Committee on Education and the Workforce explained during a hearing on “The Impact of Biden’s Open Border on the American Workforce” on September 13:

Real wages for the working class have collapsed, thanks to the policies of the Biden administration. Under Trump, blue collar real wages rose 5.6 percent. Under Biden, blue-collar real wages have fallen 2.1 percent.

Bidenflation is largely responsible for the economic hardship middle-class Americans are dealing with. Additionally, the decline of blue-collar wages is significantly affected by seven million illegal aliens pouring across the border during this administration.

Good also represents Virginia’s Fifth congressional district, which includes Farmville.

Camarota was a witness at that HELP hearing, and while he never mentioned “Bidenflation” or even the “Bidenomics” the president currently touts, he did explain that “immigration, including tolerating large scale illegal immigration, has allowed society to ignore the decline” in the labor participation rate “and the accompanying social pathologies”, including drug dependency — Anthony’s reference to “drown[ing] my troubles away”.

None of this is to “scapegoat” migrants for the decline in wages or in the U.S. labor participation rate, as critics may contend. If I were in their shoes and had the chance to seek much higher wages to provide for my family by moving abroad, I’d likely take the invitation the administration is offering the world right now, too.

Economics is a science, and when examined properly it doesn’t take sides. And “supply and demand” is at the heart of that science, as any student in Econ 101 learns on day 1.

For those critics, however, who may also contend I’m not examining it properly, I turn to the late Barbara Jordan, civil-rights icon, former Democratic congresswoman from Texas, and — in the mid-1990s — chairwoman of President Clinton’s Commission on Immigration Reform. As she explained to Congress in June 1995:

Immigrants with relatively low education and skills may compete for jobs and public services with the most vulnerable of Americans, particularly those who are unemployed or underemployed. Jobs generated by immigrant businesses do not always address this problem.


Immigration policy must protect U.S. workers against unfair competition from foreign workers, with an appropriately higher level of protection to the most vulnerable in our society.

That followed up on her congressional testimony in August 1994, when she made clear that: “The Commission is particularly concerned about the impact of immigration on the most disadvantaged within our already resident society — inner city youth, racial and ethnic minorities, and recent immigrants who have not yet adjusted to life in the U.S.”

Jordan’s words, of course, are just the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it.

Thus far, the president’s border policies have focused on helping the migrants themselves, and aside from the fiscal costs of caring for those migrants, there’s been no real discussion of the effect their labor has or might have on the wages and working conditions of “the most vulnerable of Americans, particularly those who are unemployed or underemployed”. If Biden’s mentioned it, I didn’t hear it.

For what it’s worth, those congressional Democrats calling for work authorization for the migrants already here haven’t mentioned the effects of their demands on the wages and working conditions of disadvantaged American workers, either. Again: They are the only ones with the power to change the law, and so their silence on these those effects — and their inaction — speaks volumes.