The Diane Rehm Show, a public-affairs program carried by many public radio stations around the country, has a deserved reputation for sophistication and fair-mindedness in presenting competing points of view. But Wednesday's program, where Rehm and her guests discussed the roots of political alienation in the American working class, badly missed that mark.
Instead of an informed and lively discussion of an issue that is reverberating across the electoral landscape, the program gave a forum to an immigration-policy version of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They were conservative economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin of the American Action Forum and liberal columnist David Leonhardt of the New York Times.
Together they illustrated one half of the strange-bedfellows phenomenon of the immigration debate. The other half comprises conservatives and liberals who are alarmed about mass immigration, particularly the illegal immigration of unskilled workers who have entered the U.S. labor market by the millions.
Holtz-Eakin and Leonhardt agreed most amicably that there is no reason for alarm. They assured Rehm that those who say immigration has damaged American workers are ignorant and resentful malcontents. They were like police trying to disperse an unruly crowd forming by prodding them, "Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. Everything is hunky-dory, so just move along."
The most interesting comment came from Leonhardt, following Holtz-Eakin's glib declaration that illegal immigrants "are not harming us; they're helping us." In cooperative Tweedledum fashion, Leonhard chimed in:
The people who are here illegally tend not to speak English. They tend not to have a high school degree, they can't do jobs that many 16-year-olds enrolled in American high school can do. ... They don't have the skills to do those jobs. So they just can't be taking large numbers of jobs from Americans who do speak English and do have just have much higher skill levels. They're doing different jobs.
Referring to the concerns of those who claim illegal immigrants have damaged American workers, Rehm asked, "So where does that idea come from?"
Said Leonhard: "I think it comes from fact that when things are going badly, you want to try to figure out why they're going badly." Agreed Holtz-Eakin: "What's powerful is fear and anger. And so, stoke people's fears. Get them angry at somebody. Illegal immigrants are an easy target. ... That's where you get political alienation."
Leonhardt's commitment to singing harmony with Holtz-Eakin required a sharp change of tune from his solo performance in a 2008 story where he reported:
The bulk of illegal immigrants have little education, which means that they worsen economic inequality (even if their impact is often greatly exaggerated). Their presence in the labor market reduces the cost of many items — from home construction and child care to fruit and vegetables — but does so by holding down wages for the native high-school dropouts who compete for those jobs.
Now, perhaps we shouldn't have expected Diane Rehm's staff to have prepped Rehm for the show by pulling up Leonhardt's 2008 story. But they certainly could have made Ms. Rehm aware that there are sophisticated voices on the other side of the argument. Here are two. (Note to the staff: Call if you want more.)
Prof. Andrew Sum, director of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies:
Employers have chosen to use new immigrants over native-born workers and have continued to displace large numbers of blue-collar workers and young adults without college degrees. ... One of the advantages of hiring, particularly young, undocumented immigrants, is the fact that employers do not have to pay health benefits or basic payroll taxes.
Prof. George Borjas, Harvard economist, writing in Politico:
Immigration redistributes wealth from those who compete with immigrants to those who use immigrants — from the employee to the employer. ... And the immigrants themselves come out ahead, too. Put bluntly, immigration turns out to be just another income redistribution program.